SOARing with SpaceX: UoM launches first-ever satellite
Research impact and institutes 10th June 2021
Here at Manchester we’re used to reaching for the stars, but this time we’ve gone one step further – and launched our very own satellite.
Aiming to revolutionise Earth observation satellites, DISCOVERER is a €5.7 million project – led by The University of Manchester, in collaboration with, among others, Nanoracks, the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London, and GOMSpace – that truly is out of this world.
Or, to be more precise, in very low Earth orbit (VLEO).
The groundbreaking research seeks to develop technologies that will better enable VLEO, and produce satellites that are smaller, lighter, and more cost-efficient.
And last week, on 3 June at 6.29pm BST, the Satellite for Orbital Aerodynamics Research (SOAR) – a 3U CubeSat launched on SpaceX’s CRS-22 mission – finally had lift off…
Breaking new ground
The mission launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and headed to the International Space Station. From there, SOAR will be deployed into orbit. A team at Manchester will then control the satellite from the ground – right here on campus.
It might all sound like something from Star Wars, but it’s what the project could achieve that’s providing A New Hope for researchers. Once in orbit, the satellite will get to work – studying the residual atmosphere and associated gas-surface interactions in VLEO.
Data received from SOAR will then be used for various purposes, including the study of interactions between the residual atmosphere in low orbits, and the study of new materials – developed here at the University – that could lead to both drag reduction and an increase in aerodynamic performance.
As Dr Peter Roberts, Scientific Coordinator for DISCOVERER and a Reader in Spacecraft Engineering in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, notes: “The satellite represents the culmination of a huge amount of technology development over many years.
“We’re breaking new ground with a satellite designed specifically to explore aerodynamic effects in very low Earth orbits, whilst simultaneously measuring atmospheric parameters such as density and composition.”
Avoiding ‘space junk’
But why is VLEO so important?
One reason is the intriguing, yet very considerable, problem of orbital debris. According to NASA, more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris – or ‘space junk’ – are tracked by the US Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network sensors.
Unlike natural meteoroids (which we recently looked at here on The Hub), orbital debris is classified as any human-made object, in orbit about the Earth, that no longer serves a useful function. And… there’s a lot of it. In fact, there exists around half a million pieces of at-least-marble-sized debris out there.
This debris poses a very real threat – to both human spaceflight and robotic missions. Due to the speed at which it travels, even the smallest pieces of debris can cause significant damage to a spacecraft; a tiny fleck of paint, for example, can make its mark when moving at high velocity.
Orbiting much closer to Earth, however, can markedly decrease this risk. Importantly, it can also increase the quality of images transmitted back to us.
Looking to the sky
The SOAR satellite features a remarkable set of fins, coated with four different materials, that can individually rotate to different angles. These steerable fins will enable researchers to analyse interaction between the test materials and the residual atmosphere – and, what’s more, they can also be used as control surfaces to demonstrate novel aerodynamic control manoeuvres in orbit.
It is hoped the DISCOVERER project will lead, ultimately, to the development of technologies that enable commercially-viable, sustained operation of satellites in VLEO, for both communications and remote sensing applications.
As Dr Roberts adds: “The satellite launch is a key milestone for DISCOVERER, paving the way for the regular use of very low orbits for commercial missions.”
It’s all sounding a bit Star Wars again…
… and we, for one, can’t wait for the Return of the Data.
Words: Joe Shervin
Video: Kory Stout
Images: Shutterstock, The University of Manchester
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