A nanosatellite built by a team at Tel Aviv University launched into space on Saturday, taking off at 7:36 pm Israel time from the NASA launch facility in Virginia. The satellite, dubbed TAU-SAT1, is the first of its kind to be designed, developed, assembled, and tested by the Israeli university.
TAU-SAT1 will conduct several experiments while in orbit, including the measurement of cosmic radiation around the Earth.
Work on the satellite was done at the Center for Nanosatellites, an interdisciplinary endeavor between the Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering and the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences and the Soreq Nuclear Research Center.
“This is a nanosatellite, or miniature satellite, of the CubeSat variety,” Dr. Ofer Amrani, head of Tel Aviv University’s Miniature Satellite Lab, said, noting the satellite’s dimensions are 10 by 10 by 30 cm, and that it weighs less than 2.5 kg.
“TAU-SAT1 is the first nanosatellite designed, built, and tested independently in an Israeli university by researchers and students,” he added.
TAU completed the construction of TAU-SAT1 about four months ago, sending it for pre-flight testing at the Japanese space agency JAXA. The nanosatellite arrived at its final stop prior to liftoff, Wallops Island in Virginia, some two weeks ago.
In Virginia, the nanosatellite “cached a ride” on a NASA resupply spacecraft destined for the International Space Station (ISS,) a TAU statement said.
The launch is said to mark another milestone in the “New Space” revolution where organizations, and not just governments, can belong to the “space club.”
“It’s a big day for TAU,” says Prof. Colin Price, head of TAU’s Porter Department of Environmental Studies. “We have now joined the ‘Civil Space Revolution,’ called New Space, in which, unlike the Old Space, not only giant companies with huge budgets and large teams of engineers can build and launch satellites.”
“A few years ago we established the Center for Nanosatellites, with the goal to build small ‘CubeSat’ for research purposes. Since then we were able to prove that with the right planning, miniaturization and modulation of many technologies, small satellites can be built and launched into space within two years by students, at a fraction of the budget needed in the Old Space,” he added.
Challenges in space
The research satellite will orbit the earth at a “dizzying speed” of 27,600 km per hour, or 7.6km per second, at an altitude of 400km above sea level, completing a circuit around Earth every 90 minutes
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“We know that there are high-energy particles moving through space that originate from the sun’s cosmic radiation,” said Dr. Meir Ariel, director of TAU’s Center for Nanosatellites, “Our scientific task is to monitor this radiation, and to measure the flux of these particles and their products. It should be understood that space is a hostile environment, not only for humans but also for electronic systems.”
When these particles hit astronauts or electronic equipment in space, they can cause significant damage, Dr. Ariel said.
“The scientific information collected by our satellite will enable the design of protective means for astronauts and space systems. To this end, we incorporated into the satellite a number of experiments, developed by our partners at SNRC’s Space Environment Department, who will also conduct the relevant scientific research,” he explained.
Another challenge for the TAU team was how to extract the data collected by the TAU-SAT1 satellite. The team built a satellite station on the roof of the school’s Engineering building for this purpose, according to Dr. Armani. The station, which also serves as an amateur radio station, includes a number of antennas and an automated control system.
“When TAU-SAT1 passes ‘over’ Israel, that is, within a radius of a few thousand kilometers from the ground station’s receiving range, the antennas will track the satellite’s orbit and a process of data transmission will occur between the satellite and the station,” Dr. Armani said, “Such transmissions will take place about four times a day, with each one lasting less than 10 minutes.”
Inn addition to its scientific mission, the satellite will also serve as a space relay station for amateur radio communities around the world, he explained.
The satellite is expected to be active for several months, according to Dr. Armani. “Because it has no engine, its trajectory will fade over time as a result of atmospheric drag — and eventually it will burn up in the atmosphere and come back to us as stardust,” he said.
The TAU team said its researchers aim to design another nanosatellite, which will be called TAU-SAT2.
“We built the infrastructure for developing TAU-SAT1 on our own — from the cleanrooms, through the various testing facilities such as the thermal vacuum chamber, to the receiving and transmission station we placed on the roof,” said Dr. Armani, “Now that the infrastructure is ready, we can begin to develop TAU-SAT2. The idea is that any researcher and any student, from any school at Tel Aviv University, or outside of it, will be able to plan and launch experiments into space in the future – even without being an expert on space.”