Experiencing space in classrooms

Space is a growing industry in which India has a leading role, and students can take advantage of the opportunities to have experience of flight programs in universities, writes Dr Patrick Harkness.

The launch of the first spacecraft of the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) constellation is an important step in the development of a new navigation capability. IRNSS-1A was placed in an orbit so high above the earth that it takes 24 hours to circle the planet, exactly matching the rotation of the earth and thus enabling it to remain visible from India at all times. This means that users of the service will be able to determine their position and thus facilitate their everyday journeys or report their location in an emergency, potentially saving money, time and even lives over the duration of the program.

Each of the IRNSS spacecraft is a major investment in India’s future and will be built by highly-qualified engineers and technicians, but there is a mechanism by which students of engineering can obtain experience of an actual space program even before they graduate. This mechanism is the CubeSat standard, a format by which small satellites can be built up from modules that fit into a 10 cm x 10 cm chassis and then use the spare capacity on major launch vehicles to reach orbit. Although the orbits are usually lower than those planned for the IRNSS, and the smaller spacecraft are less powerful because they have a smaller area over which to collect sunlight for electricity, the CubeSats can be used as a testbed for new equipment and conduct very important scientific experiments.

At the same time, their relatively low cost means that many universities can now offer their students access to these actual flight programs, gaining experience which will be invaluable in either an academic or industrial career. The StudSat programme, led by students from across India, is an excellent example of what can be achieved.

With the global space industry expanding, experience of a flight program is particularly important for scientists and engineers at the start of their career. Involvement in a CubeSat program offers challenges for mechanical engineers, who must design systems that operate without traditional oils which would quickly vaporise into space, and students of electronic systems who must control the spacecraft and operate its communication links with a very limited power budget. The practical experience of being involved in a flight program and overcoming the hurdles involved, can complement a formal qualification in space systems engineering and result in opportunities to work all over the world.

Of course, the growth in the space industry is not limited to major programs such as IRNSS. CubeSats are a growth industry in their own right, and in the future we can expect their capabilities to increase as more capable payloads are miniaturised and flown in the standard 10 cm x 10 cm chassis.

In this field undergraduate students can support the development of world-leading disruptive technology that might not get a flight opportunity in a high-cost mission where extreme reliability is a key driver. Furthermore, as the space industry supports more and more private enterprise, there are opportunities to use this hands-on experience to build new businesses and offer new commercial services to the market and to the world.

The interplay between universities and business is a particularly interesting area that provides tremendous opportunities to both develop new ideas and bring them to fruition in a practical setting.

For example, undergraduates at the University of Glasgow, in the UK, have been working on a CubeSat deorbit system with a small company, Clyde Space, that is also based in Glasgow and has already secured a large share of the CubeSat module market. The business idea is that, as more satellites are launched, old ones will have to be removed from orbit if collisions are to be avoided

. To achieve this the academic partners have designed a device that can extend a large sail-like structure that will generate an aerodynamic drag force against the very thin upper atmosphere that reaches up into near-earth space, and the company is now commercialising and qualifying this technology as a stand-alone end-of-life disposal module called AEOLDOS: the Aerodynamic End Of Life DeOrbit System. There are new ideas for propulsion, such as pulsed plasma thrusters, improved communications via deployable antenna structures, and other functions and capabilities being both researched and developed at this academic-industrial interface all around the world. In smaller programs, with smaller teams, creativity and ingenuity have a more flexible environment that allows young people to drive new concepts into service much faster than could be achieved on a major mission.

Space is therefore a growing industry in which India already has a leading role, and today’s students can capitalise on this by taking advantage of the opportunities that exist to develop experience of flight programmes in universities, in small companies, and in the boundary between the two, as well as through direct entry into major established programs and organisations such as IRNSS and ISRO. In academia, or in industry - big or small, there can be few pursuits that can offer such an outward-looking career and which offer so much potential to change the world for the better.

(The writer is a lecturer in Space Systems engineering at the University of Glasgow.)

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