Mauritius’s Big Step to becoming a Spacefaring Nation: The story of MIR-SAT 1

This interview was republished from UNOOSA's website. The interviewees are Vickram Bissonauth, Faraaz Shamutally and Ziyaad Soreefan (Mauritius Research Innovation Council)

Team MRIC (from left; Mr. Faraaz Shamtually, Mr. Ziyaad Soreefan, Dr. Vickram Bissonauth, Mr. Koushul Narrain and Mr. Kiran Tatoree) ©MRIC

Background

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), in partnership with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), offers the UN/Japan Cooperation Programme on CubeSat Deployment from the International Space Station (ISS) Japanese Experiment Module (Kibo) “KiboCUBE”. The programme aims to provide educational or research institutions from developing countries with the opportunity to deploy CubeSats from the International Space Station Japanese Experiment Module “Kibo”. 

The collaboration between UNOOSA and JAXA started in 2015 and has been the cornerstone of the UNOOSA Access to Space for All Initiative. Thanks to KiboCUBE, three countries, Kenya, Guatemala and Mauritius, have deployed their satellites into space. Mauritius Research and Innovation Council (MRIC) was selected as the 3rd round awardee of KiboCUBE in 2018. The first satellite of the Republic of Mauritius, MIR-SAT 1, was successfully deployed into space on 22 June 2021 and is now orbiting the Earth. 

Interview

What is the main objective of MIR-SAT 1?

In the initial design, the Mauritius Imagery and Radiocommunications Satellite 1 “MIR-SAT 1” was a CubeSat that carried a thermal infrared camera to detect sea temperature change and UHF/VHF modules and S-band to acquire experience in satellite communication technologies. However, due to technical difficulties and some of the components planned for use being phased out of the market, many changes had to be made during the development. As a result, the current MIR-SAT 1 is equipped with a commercial off-the-shelf camera, testing the transmission of imagery and onboard communication systems. We have also included an experimental module that will allow us to test ‘island to island’ communication between the Indian Ocean islands. 

First Mauritian Nanosatellite, MIR-SAT1 | Image Credit: Mauritius Research and Innovation Council (MRIC)

What is the current status of MIR-SAT 1?

The satellite is currently in orbit and is in an 8-week commissioning phase, where we are checking the health of all the satellite subsystems. The commissioning phase also helps us get a good grip on the ground segment and solve issues as they appear. For example, we set our antenna on the 10th floor of the MRIC building but had to unmount it when the wind was too strong and threatened its integrity. 

Thanks to the radio amateurs worldwide who were on the outlook for signals from MIR-SAT 1 from the launch, we were notified that the first signal from the CubeSat was received just 45 minutes after the deployment. Thanks to the hard work (Pro-Bono) of our expert collaborators Mr Daniel Estevez and Mr Chris Thompson, we developed a decoder to share with all radio amateurs so that they can connect and download telemetry data from MIR-SAT 1, which proved successful and helped us grasp the status of our satellite.

As part of the requirements of the KiboCube Programme, we are also carrying out capacity-building activities targeting secondary school students with the support of the Mauritius Amateur Radio Society (MARS). The support of the radio amateur community has been outstanding, and members of MARS, led by Mr Jean Marc Momple. The aim of these workshops is for students to get familiar with the antennas and communication technology. We have helped 100 students from over 12 schools and five universities to build simple antennas to communicate with MIR-SAT 1.

How did the MIR-SAT 1 team start?

It all started, back in 2017, with a solicitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Tertiary Education, Science and Technology to all universities in the country and institutions such as MRIC to consider participation in the KiboCUBE Programme offering the possibility for Mauritius to design, build and deploy a CubeSat in space. MRIC, as part of its mandate to pioneer new and emerging research, took up the challenge. We solicited help from several international experts, amongst which only AAC Clyde Space, a UK based company, responded positively to our solicitation. 

In close consultation with AAC-Clyde Space, we started to work on a proposal. In a short time, we could put an application together and submit it just in time. That proposal did not make it through at our first attempt in 2017, but we received advice on improvements from an engineer from JAXA, which encouraged us to try even more challenging for the following round. We then sought advice and expertise from the amateur radio community at MARS. Together with AAC-Clyde Space, we submitted a second proposal to the 3rd Round of the KiboCube programme, where our proposal was finally selected among all the submissions.

With the help of AAC Clyde Space, we worked through the whole process of satellite design, building and testing. AAC Clyde Space also trained our personnel for designing, building, testing and operating the satellite and its ground station. Slowly but surely, our team is getting a good grip of all the technicalities that we need to understand. We are all enjoying this learning process together.

How did the development of MIR-SAT 1 go?

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the development for roughly more than one year. We managed to work with Clyde Space online, with countless meetings, exchanging documents and information electronically. Honestly, if we could complete the scheduled visits to the UK where our team members would have had the chance to be present in the facilities, we feel we would have gained a lot more. Primarily, after travel restrictions kicked in, the testing phase and assembly phase were all conducted online. Safety assessments and reviews with JAXA were also all conducted online.

This was a new way of working for JAXA, and we all discovered new things, learned, adapted, and grew from each other through this experience. We would not say that everything went smooth during the development phase. Still, our team valued the “People’s Approach”. Instead of just sending emails and waiting, we were proactive and found opportunities to talk and engage more with the related people.

Were there any challenging moments in the process?

There were frustrating moments where we had to push for things, but we could navigate through them and made very effective use of online productivity tools that helped adjust everyone’s different work styles. KiboCUBE has also been a great learning experience on working with other cultures and on international cooperation. With this, we are ready to overcome different challenges.

One of the most challenging experiences through the project was radio frequency registration. Still, luckily we were working together with the amateur radio community and the local authority for telecommunication – the Information and Communication Technologies Authority of Mauritius (ICTA). One of the team members, Jean-Marc Momple, a radio amateur, was instrumental in this process. We believe that UNOOSA and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) have worked together to provide information. More awareness-raising on that topic would be beneficial, and KiboCUBE as a programme can do more in that respect.

How has the deployment of MIR-SAT 1 impacted your country?

Mauritius’s government and the people are very proud that, only after 50 years of independence, Mauritius has become spacefaring, with our satellite in space. This very first satellite has opened new opportunities for us. Many messages have congratulated the country and expressed interest in learning from our experience or for international collaboration.

What future vision do you have now?

We envision a future with space technology, especially satellite technology, contributing to the country’s critical socio-economic pillars in 10-20 years. We are in discussion for the development of a space programme. The four aspects of the programme would be,

  1. Pursuing capacity building, awareness-raising and development of space satellite technology;
  2. Leveraging international collaboration opportunities to push the country’s mandate further;
  3. Initiating the creation of space-related start-ups in the country to create business; and
  4. Creating a national network for space science, technology and applications incorporating the universities in Mauritius and making sense of the already existing space data to advise policymakers.

With the government interested in encouraging the creation of new and innovative business within the country, this is an opportunity to bring international firms conducting space-related business to Mauritius to create a knowledge portal and future revenues. As a Small Island Developing State (SIDS), Mauritius is constantly at risk of the adverse effects of climate change.

Mitigation of these effects is a big priority of the country. We strongly believe that space technology can contribute to mitigating, adapting, and innovating new solutions to address climate change. We hope that UNOOSA and the international community help us t by continuously supporting the MIR-SAT 1 project. Likewise, by sharing lessons learned of developing space activities, especially SIDS, and giving us a voice.

Would you recommend KiboCUBE to others, and why?

KiboCUBE has been a fascinating journey for us. At each step, you discover something new, and you can grow. The Access to Space for All Initiative and KiboCUBE allows countries to participate in space activities in the new era. It boosts innovation and confidence within the country and has brought us recognition from other countries.

We strongly recommend countries to take part in KiboCUBE and the other Access to Space for All opportunities. It is not an easy journey, but it is worth it every step of the way. 

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