Lessons from a university’s first cubesat
by Fergus Downey
|From the start of the mission, the team struggled to grasp what was achievable with the time and money available.|
Binar-1 was built by a team of PhD students and engineers at Curtin University’s Space Science and Technology Centre. Its mission: a technology demonstration to test whether the innovative design—all systems integrated on a single circuit board at its core—would survive in space.
Although parts of the mission were not a complete success, owing to some last-minute design changes, that goal was still achieved.
Binar-1 is a 1U size cubesat, meaning it measured just 10 centimeters across, roughly the size of a lunchbox. Don’t let the size fool you: the satellite was packed with microelectronics to optimize its volume for countless future science and education missions.
It was launched to the International Space Station on August 29, 2021, aboard a SpaceX resupply mission, and deployed from the station’s Kibo module.
As a “technology demonstrator”, the spacecraft was flying its essential systems for the first time. The lessons learned from its fiery end will prepare the Binar Space Program for the next step: Binar-2, -3, and -4.
From the start of the mission, the team struggled to grasp what was achievable with the time and money available. This cost us valuable time, as redesigns were necessary every time we defined a new objective. Once we realized a technology demonstration was our true target, we could nail what we were trying to deliver.
By having a plan for delays, we can be more agile when it comes to tight launch deadlines. With Binar-1, we assumed our test schedule would stick to the timeline, but this was never likely.
For our next launch, we’ve prioritized which tests we know are essential and which tests we can drop, so we can make better choices when it’s time to meet our deadlines.
One of the challenges we faced was testing our designs in a manner that replicated the satellite’s behavior in space. It may seem like an obvious lesson, but using the antennas to test your satellite systems, instead of that convenient USB port you had designed it with, makes a big difference.
You can’t learn this lesson without actually flying the satellite, but we certainly were not as prepared as we could have been for operations.
The number of tweaks to the ground station and command and control processes once our satellite was already flying made it clear that involving the operation plan from an early stage will prepare you for mission success.
|Our current spacecraft burn up before they reach the ground, but eventually, we hope to return one of our satellites to Earth in one piece.|
A few too many assumptions were made during the design, which certainly affected the assembly and testing of Binar-1. For example, we assumed the radio module we tested on the ground worked the same as the one we sent to space—but that wasn’t the case, leading to some frantic last-minute changes that eventually meant we didn’t get the images or data we hoped for from orbit.
For our future missions, all assumptions need to be vetted by the entire team to minimize the impact they can have on a mission if the assumptions are inaccurate.
The Binar Space Program and the Space Science and Technology Centre are now preparing for their first real science mission. On board our three cubesats will be a radiation material test performed in collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a software experiment letting the spacecraft make decisions on its own, and a few others designed by undergraduate students at the university.
But the mission’s final piece of science won’t come until it too meets its fiery end: it’s our very own attempt to catch a falling star, a tracking system to identify exactly when each of the next spacecraft will become a Binar.
Our current spacecraft burn up before they reach the ground, but eventually, we hope to return one of our satellites to Earth in one piece, and this tracking system is just one of many small steps towards this massive goal. If you want to follow along and catch these fireballs with your own eyes in the future, you can read more on the Binar Space Program website.
Note: we are using a new commenting system, which may require you to create a new account.