European Students Seeking Payload for Grass-roots Cubesat Mission

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SAN FRANCISCO — A team of European students and space enthusiasts sent out a worldwide call for payload proposals on Jan. 17 seeking an innovative experiment or technology demonstration for launch in a miniature cubesat satellite. The project, which is being called CubeSat-X until a specific mission is identified, was conceived by five people. Four are students who attend Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain and the fifth is an aerospace engineer who recently graduated from that school.

The students, who are studying electrical engineering, materials science, mathematics and physics, have participated in several space projects already including designing experiments and technology for parabolic flights, a stratospheric balloon and a simulated manned mission to Mars. “Thanks to those projects and experiences, we have quite a good knowledge of what we are doing,” said team member Guerric de Crombrugghe, an electrical engineering student who is writing a master’s thesis on cubesats, the standardized, cube-shaped satellite platforms that measure 10 centimeters on each side.

Jeroen Van den Eynde, the team’s aerospace engineer, added that CubeSat-X team members have gained valuable international experience working on projects with the European Space Agency, the International Space University and the European Organization for Nuclear Research. “We have a huge pool of expertise that we can tap into,” he added.

While the team has the know-how to build a cubesat and team members are confident they can raise an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 euros to pay for its launch, the missing component was a relevant scientific experiment, de Crombrugghe said. To find an experiment, the team published a call for proposals in the United States, Europe, Australia, India, Russia, Israel and Singapore, Van den Eynde said.

“A lot of people have CubeSat experiments they would like to launch,” de Crombrugghe said. “Instead of flying an experiment that is not scientifically relevant, we decided to ask for ideas.”

Within 24 hours, the first proposal had been submitted, de Crombrugghe said. The team anticipates many more proposals before the March 18 deadline for submissions, he added.

In its call for proposals, the CubeSat-X team identified a launch date in 2018. That timeline was designed to attract a wide range of proposals, including projects that may take years to develop. After a payload has been selected, however, the team may revise the schedule. Based on the payload chosen, the mission could be scheduled to fly earlier, possibly in as little as three to four years, de Crombrugghe said.

The timeline published by the CubeSat-X team also calls for the mission’s preliminary requirements review to occur in June 2011, its preliminary design review in January 2013 and its critical design review in June 2016. Once the preliminary design review has been completed, the team will seek funding and sponsorships from industry and academic institutions, de Crombrugghe said.

The CubeSat-X team plans to review payload proposals submitted for their project and to select 10 finalists by June. Those finalists will be asked to discuss their proposals with CubeSat-X team members and to consider publishing their payload ideas on the CubeSat-X website, according to the CubeSat-X Call for Payload Proposals published Jan. 17.

Instead of simply adopting the standardized cubesat design, CubeSat-X team members hope to improve the technology. “Most cubesat projects use a standard antenna deployment system and solar cell configuration because they have been proven,” Van den Eynde said. “We will try to come up with different and, hopefully, better configurations and solutions.”

Team members will search for ways to boost power for on-board experiments. “The biggest problem with cubesats is their power limit,” de Crombrugghe said. “If, for example, we can design solar arrays that deploy and offer more power, then we will be answering a need of the community.”