A microsatellite built largely from donated parts in university workshops across Europe is set for launch at the end of the month and will be the first in a trio of student-built spacecraft that ultimately will reach for the Moon.

It took only 18 months for more than 400 students spread across 23 universities and 12 countries to design and build the Student Space Exploration Technology Initiative (SSETI) Express spacecraft. Set to launch from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome Sept. 30, the project is part an education effort by the European Space Agency (ESA) to boost student interest in space technology and offer some hands-on experience.

“The idea is for the students to benefit from the real experience,” said Philippe Willekens, education projects administrator for ESA. “I can say easily that this satellite was 99 percent made by them.”

Student teams built SSETI Express subsystem by subsystem and communicated primarily through the Internet, through weekly chat sessions and twice-yearly workshops helped to keep everyone on the same page.

“It was a great opportunity to learn a lot about high space technology,” said Marcin Jagoda, who graduated from Poland’s Wroclaw University of Technology in July where his team developed the satellite’s communications system, in an e-mail interview. “I’m really looking forward to launch.”

SSETI is a boxy 62-kilogram satellite about the size of a small washing machine. It is expected to snap photographs of Earth, test a cold-gas attitude control system and function as a radio transponder for amateur radio operators.

The spacecraft also will serve as a mother ship for three picosatellites, tiny cubes just under 10 centimeters wide. The picosatelites were built by universities in Germany, Japan and Norway.

Altogether, the spacecraft cost the ESA Education Department less than 100,000 euros ($121,185) thanks to donated material, equipment and expertise from participating universities and industry businesses, ESA officials said.

While there was a small bit of “shadow engineering” during the development of SSETI Express, it was the students who handled the lion’s share of the work, Willekens said.

“The biggest challenge is, from my point of view, the collaboration with the other teams,” said Nils Harmsen, a fourth-year student at the University of Stuttgart in Germany who worked on SSETI Express’ propellant system, in an e-mail interview. “You have to take care of all your team’s interfaces with other systems … if the interfaces aren’t all right, it will cost the whole project a lot of time and nerves.”

ESA officials plan SSETI Express to be the first of three microsatellites built by student teams.

Also in the planning stages are the European Student Earth Orbiter (ESEO), an Earth-watching spacecraft, and the European Student Moon Orbiter (ESMO), both of which are expected to build on the performance of the Express mission.

“We’ll learn from our lessons and we’ll optimize,” Willekens said. “I am convinced this is one of the best ways to educate.”

While SSETI Express will launch atop a Russian Kosmos 3M rocket later this month, the 120-kilogram ESEO spacecraft — nearly twice as heavy as its predecessor — will fly aboard an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket slated for a 2008 liftoff.

The lunar orbiter is scheduled to fly sometime between 2010 and 2012, and is expected to conduct experiments during the flights to and from the Moon, ESA officials said.

Students also can get involved in much more than just building a spacecraft, since there are legal and public affairs functions that must be fulfilled, Willekens said.

In addition to boosting student interest, ESA also is hoping to attract the amateur radio community.

The space agency is hosting a world wide contest to radio amateurs, calling on them to tune into SSETI Express’ broadcast and retrieve any data they can gather. ESA officials are offering free downloadable software and access to the satellite’s UHF- and S-band communications systems for interested participants.

Meanwhile, SSETI teams continue to work on their next project, the ESEO satellite now two years from its planned spaceflight.

“SSETI Express will be testing some of the hardware we will use in ESEO,” explained aeronautical engineering student Christina Trobajo, who is coordinating an ESEO team at Imperial College in London, adding that the project pays off in spades. “We’re all very excited about it, as it’s our desire to see our work in space.”