After five years of development and almost two years of waiting for its launch, the first Slovak satellite, skCUBE, is finally fulfilling its cosmic mission. It was successfully launched by an Indian rocket along with other about 30 satellites on June 23. One week later the Slovak Organisation for Space Activities (SOSA) and other participating universities and organisations announced that the satellite is orbiting Earth and working properly.
The main goal of this project is to demonstrate that Slovakia is capable of doing highly sophisticated space research.
“Since June 23 we have been successfully receiving data from the satellite,” said Jakub Kapuš, the head of the team behind the satellite and the vice-chair of the Slovak Organisation for Space Activities (SOSA), on June 30. “It is working very well. Already this is a huge success because out of satellites developed by universities, as much as 70 percent do not even peep from the cosmos.”
Approximately 20 minutes after the launch, skCUBE was separated from its launch vehicle and began its mission in space. Another 30 minutes later, it engaged its communications antennae and began sending the first signals from orbit.
“As early as during its first orbit around the Earth its signals were first picked up by amateur radio enthusiast Dmitriy Paskov in Moscow, who sent us an email,” said Kapuš, adding that they received the first data packets within two hours.
Slovakia has become the 78th country in the world to launch its own satellite.
“I am extremely proud that Slovakia belongs among countries which not only have their own spaceman but also their own satellite,” said Deputy Prime Minister for Investments and Informatisation Peter Pellegrini.
Pellegrini sees aerospace engineering to be another sector, along with automotive and IT, in which Slovakia can offer a lot of interesting solutions.
“The launch of this satellite is only the beginning,” said Pellegrini, believing that other projects will follow the experience of development, launch and operation of the nanosatellite skCUBE.
The satellite skCUBE is a CubeSat, i.e. a miniaturized satellite for space research. It was developed by SOSA while experts from universities and several organisations participated as well. It is packed with new technologies and components developed exclusively by the Slovak team.
The 10 cm cube weighs about one kilo and is orbiting the Earth from a height of between approximately 505-520 kilometres above the Earth and at the first cosmic velocity, i.e. 7.9 kilometres per second. One flypast lasts approximately 90 minutes. The space centre. i.e. ‘small Huston’ located at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology of the Slovak Technical University in Bratislava, receives data packets from the satellite six times per day. These contain data about the operation of the satellite and its systems. The data is open, meaning that radio amateurs, based on instructions available at www.skcube.sk, can receive the data and analyse it.
The satellite is actually fulfilling two missions. The first one focuses on functioning of the satellite itself and the technologies used, while the second one focuses on space research.
Firstly the team behind skCUBE will check, based on sent data packages, whether the satellite is working properly and only afterwards it will begin other experiments.
“The satellite is for us primarily a technological experiment,” said Kapuš, adding that data they receive from all the sensors are engineering data enabling them to continue in the development of such nanosatellites.
Slovak engineers have developed for skCUBE an onboard computer, attitude determination and control system, sun sensors, communication module and others, which have to be able to cope with the harsh environment of the cosmos. This means that it must be able to work in a vacuum, under strong radiation and changing temperatures.
They even wrote the operating system.
“Other teams usually buy a commercial operating system designed for such critical applications,” said Kapuš.
The main on-board experiment will be a very-low-frequency receiver consisting of an antenna commonly known as the magnetic loop. It will allow them to observe radio signals in space at frequencies from 3 to 30 kHz blocked on Earth by the ionosphere.
On the board there is also a camera which will be put into operation only after the team is completely sure that the satellite is working without any flaws.
“One wrong order sent from Earth to the satellite may destroy the whole project,” said Kapuš, adding that the camera may be switched on within one or two weeks.
They estimate that the satellite may be working and sending data for about two years.
Volunteers in aerospace research and developers
Another unique feature of the project of skCUBE is that even though it received some financial support from the government and private companies, the experts involved in it work exclusively as volunteers and are not paid for what they do.
“The budget of this cosmic mission is about €370,000, which is, by the way, one third or one-quarter of budgets of similar projects abroad,” said Kapuš. “But when speaking about the value of the whole project, we cannot omit the work of all those participating on this project as volunteers. This voluntary work has been worth more than €0.5 million.”
As the skCUBE is working properly, its team has been looking into the future with some ambitious plans.
“Our goal was not to launch a satellite that would only pipe up for one time after a successful launch and do nothing more,” said Kapuš. “Our ambition is that this satellite should serve as a background on which we want to build up in the future.”
This is why data about the operation of the satellite and its systems are so important for the team behind skCUBE.
Already they are planning to create, with partners from Israel, Hungary and others, an international consortium and launch a fleet of six to ten such CubeSats into space.
“These would serve for testing new technologies but especially for astrophysical purposes,” said Kapuš, adding that these may explore gamma ray bursts, i.e. extremely energetic explosions that have been observed in distant galaxies.
The team of skCUBE has also piqued interest from commercial companies and institutions from abroad that are active in aerospace engineering and research. They are interested in some technologies the skCUBE team has developed for the satellite, for example the attitude determination and control system, and miniaturised sun sensors.
By developing these technologies, the Slovak team has joined the beginning of a new trend of nanosatellites and nanosatellite technologies.
“Such small satellites will be a huge driving force of the space research in the future,” said Kapuš, adding that a big advantage of his team is that they designed the technologies and components on their own. “Without the expertise and experience we gained while working on this satellite, we could not think about designing satellites in the future. We would be dependent on the purchase of such technologies and components and we would only be assembling the satellites.”