Come April 17, 2019, South Africa will record yet another launch of an object into space. This time, a picosatellite built by high schools students will be launched into extreme Low Earth Orbits (ELEO).
The picosatellite is developed as a part of the ThinSat Program. The ThinSat Program is designed to attract students’ participation in the space industry through foundational space and STEM programs. According to the program structure, students from middle school to the university level are trained to develop satellite hardware, test sensor components with low and high altitude balloon flights, analyze data, and launch an actual payload into space.
South African students, using the XinaBox xChip (pronounced: X in a Box), built one of the picosatellites that will form a part of the Fifty-five student ThinSat constellation which will be deployed to an altitude of roughly 250km and will enter what is known as Extreme Low Earth Orbit (ELEO)
Schools participating include sixteen schools in the Western Cape of South Africa, collaborating on one ThinSat. These schools will be able to share their data with the USA-based schools collaborating on fifty-four ThinSats, collectively creating a BIGData project with never-before-collected data.
The ThinSats will collect data at a unique altitude, which has never been studied before. The satellites’ orbits will degrade and they will re-enter the atmosphere after ten days. The picosatellites are the size of a slice of bread, they will burn up completely in the atmosphere, not endanger anyone on our planet.
Data collected by the satellites’ sensors will be transmitted using a Globalstar radio, and display on a data dashboard for interpretation and analysis.
The XinaBox sensors and the data to be collected include:
- An inertial measurement unit (IMU) to measure and report the ThinSats’ angular rate, and the magnetic field surrounding the body, using a combination of accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers. This data will allow the students to calculate pitch, yaw and roll of the satellite to describe its flight.
- A set of light sensors to assess visible light (lux), Ultra-Violet A and Ultra-Violet B. Using this data, the teams can calculate the light available for the solar cells to charge the onboard batteries, as well as the UV-Index experienced by the satellite, as it has no protection from our Earth’s atmosphere.
- Multiple temperature sensors on the frame of the satellite, as well as the interior of the ThinSat. The satellites will experience extreme temperature swings from way below zero when in the Earth’s shadow, and over 150 degrees centigrade when in full sun. Everyone is hoping to collect the temperature profile as the ThinSat burns up in our atmosphere!
- Radiation detection in the Infra-Red range, to complete the knowledge of the conditions the ThinSat finds itself.
- Each set of six ThinSats will have a GPS giving their location in orbit, and at least one will have a camera for orbital selfies.
The launch was initially scheduled for November 15, 2018, with the Cygnus NG-10 mission from Wallops Island in Virginia, USA, but was rescheduled for April 17, 2019
Upon a successful launch, the picosatellite will be recorded as South Africa’s 8th satellite and Africa’s 35th satellite into space.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Editor at Space in Africa. He writes about Africa’s NewSpace companies and emerging national space programs.