Research projects

Project: UoMBSat1 - MSc By Research
Supervisor: Dr Ing. Marc A. Azzopardi
Status: Completed
Funding: Endeavour Scholarship
Student: Darren Cachia
Co-Supervisor: Dr Ing. Andrew Sammut
Date: 2016 - 2017
Sponsor: T.B.C.

This project is currently developing Malta’s first pico-satellite. The miniature 5x5x5 cm, 250 gram device, referred to as a 1p PocketQube satellite, will eventually be launched into a sun-synchronous low earth orbit (LEO) and will be used to validate equipment that will study the electrical properties of an ionised region of the Earth’s upper atmosphere (known as the ionosphere).

Reducing the size and weight of satellites is a relatively recent trend that capitalises on the advances in portable consumer electronics. The aim is to minimise the cost of launching objects into space.

The collaboration has brought together two Maltese post graduate engineering students – Darren Cachia in Malta and Jonathan Camilleri, a Ph.D. student at the University of Birmingham – who have joined efforts and are developing the satellite platform and the scientific payload respectively.

The challenge is to design a reliable space-grade device using low-cost commercial off-the-shelf components, such as the ones found in modern smart phones. Special software and hardware techniques are being developed to overlap the strengths and weaknesses of individual components, and improve the reliability of computation in the harsh radiation-filled environment of space. This relatively recent development brings space technology within reach of University students and opens the door for civilian space research.

This first launch will pave the way for a constellation of eight such satellites that will spread over a larger geographical area and hence gain better coverage of the ionosphere. The mission is expected to last about 18 months and will relay information back to Earth that will be accessible to anyone owning a ham radio set. Information will be made available in due course to allow schools and interested individuals to participate using inexpensive equipment.

The multi-year pico-satellite research programme led by Dr Ing. Marc Anthony Azzopardi and Dr Ing. Andrew Sammut is the flagship of the Astrionics Research Group, which will leverage a €1 Million European ERDF investment in advanced electronic prototyping equipment to develop, manufacture and test the satellite platform. The payload development is led by Prof. Matthew Angling who runs the Space Environment and Radio Engineering (SERENE) group at the University of Birmingham. The launch is likely to be provided by Gauss Team Srl. in Italy, who launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

This research work is being partly funded by the ENDEAVOUR Scholarship Scheme, which is part financed by the European Union - European Structural and Investment Funds Operational Programme II – Cohesion Policy 2014 – 2020.

Project: UoMBSat1 - MSc By Research
Supervisor: Dr Ing. Marc A. Azzopardi
Status: Ongoing
Funding: Endeavour Scholarship
Student: Darren Debattista
Co-Supervisor: Dr Ing. Marvin Bugeja
Advisor: Prof. Ing. Simon Fabri
Date: 2016 - 2019

This project will design and realise the flight-ready hardware implementation of an attitude determination and control system (ADCS) for the UoMBSat1 Pico-Satellite. A robust, reliable, low power and cost effective ADCS will be designed to fit in the 5x5x5cm Pico-Satellite. This project will build upon prior work and aims to produce a fully-integrated system that will involve multiple actuators in a compound-control configuration.

Different attitude control and stabilisation technologies for satellites exist including: Thrusters, Reaction Wheel Control (RWC), Magnetorquers, Solar Sails and Tethers. All these methods differ in their accuracy, weight, volume and power usage to stabilise/control the attitude of the satellite. This project will evaluate previous work and generate the best solution for the attitude control of the UoMBSat1 given the mass, volume and power limitations it brings.

The use of a compound attitude control system is being considered. The need for a secondary system to aid the primary system, the need for a backup system and the need for de-saturation (for any reaction wheels) is being investigated. The dynamic behaviour of the complete system will then be derived and an iterative approach is likely.

To minimise cost, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components will be used. Since these components are not generally designed for the harsh environment found in space, particular attention will be given to the reliability and testing of the design employed.

This research work is being partly funded by the ENDEAVOUR Scholarship Scheme, which is part financed by the European Union - European Structural and Investment Funds Operational Programme II – Cohesion Policy 2014 – 2020.

Project: UoMBSat1 - MSc By Research
Supervisor: Dr Ing. Marc A. Azzopardi 
Status: Ongoing Phase 3 
Funding: Research Group
Student: Matthew Sammut, Daniel Cumbo
Co-Supervisor: Dr Ing. Maurizio Fenech
Date: 2016 - 2020
Sponsor: T.B.C.

The objective of this project is to investigate a suitable electrical propulsion engine that can be sufficiently scaled to fit the power, mass and volume budget of a 1P PocketQube Picosatellite. The selected engine is being prototyped and tested within a high vacuum environment in order to measure the force produced in a representative environment using a high sensitivity technique. Hardware development includes mechanical design of the engine and the associated electronically-controlled discharge hardware.

Project: UoMBSat1 - B.Eng. Final Year Project
Supervisor: Dr Ing. Marc A. Azzopardi 
Status: Completed Phase 1 
Funding: Research Group
Student: Ramses Rotin
Co-Supervisor: Prof. Ing. Simon Fabri
Advisor: Dr Ing. Marvin Bugeja 
Date: 2016 - 2017

The objective of this project is to develop a suitable attitude control platform that can be sufficiently scaled to fit the power, mass and volume budget of a 1P PocketQube Picosatellite. This involves integrating various actuators, drivers, sensors and a microcontroller into a compact single board design. Given the inaccessibility for repair after launch and the adverse conditions in space (thermal cycling, radiation, high vacuum, atomic oxygen), the design must take into account the reliability of components when placed under such stress. Suitable design techniques must be adopted to ensure that any failures do not propagate through the system, and that there is sufficient in-built resilience for the system be reconfigured to cope progressively with failure. Power consumption is also an important consideration, and therefore high energy efficiency is a priority.

Project: UoMBSat1 - B.Eng. Final Year Project
Supervisor: Prof. Ing. Simon Fabri
Status: Completed Phase 1
Funding: Research Group
Student: Denise Baldacchino
Co-Supervisor: Dr Ing. Marvin Bugeja 
Advisor: Dr Ing. Marc A. Azzopardi
Date: 2016 - 2017

This project contributes to the pico-satellite platform being developed by the astrionics research group at the University of Malta. It will focus on the design and implementation of an attitude control system using three reaction wheels used to regulate the 'pointing direction' of the satellite in 3D space. The satellite's attitude is controlled to the desired orientation and corrected for any disturbances through appropriate sensors and closed loop control of the angular momentum of the spinning flywheels. Various algorithms are being validated though simulation and by taking into account high fidelity disturbance models that estimate the conditions experienced by the pico-satellite in low earth orbit.

Project: UoMBSat1 - B.Eng. Final Year Project
Supervisor: Dr Ing. Pierluigi Mollicone 
Status: Completed 
Funding: Research Group
Student: Mario Bonnici
Co-Supervisor: Dr Ing. Maurizio Fenech
Advisor: Dr Ing. Marc A. Azzopardi
Date: 2016 - 2017

This project analyses various thermo-mechanical aspects related to the pico-satellite platform being developed by the Astrionics research group at the University of Malta. Among these are the stresses developed due to the unequal expansion of different but coupled materials subjected to temperature extremes. Thermal transfer and the heat capacity of the satellite is also a function of the choice and distribution of materials within the satellite. A sun-synchronous orbital model is taken into account when estimating direct solar irradiation and earth's albedo. Steady state thermal cycles are then determined numerically in order to establish the temperature variations that each component experiences over each orbit. This must be studied to suitably guide material selection and other aspects of satellite design.

Project: UoMBSat1 - Internship
Supervisor: Dr Ing. Marc A. Azzopardi 
Status: Completed
Funding: Research Group
Student 1: Pierre Courtaillac
Student 2: Jean Luc Mangion
Date: Summer 2016
Sponsor: University of Nantes

A low-cost thermal cycler is being developed to test a variety of components for the UoMBSat1 pico-satellite platform. This project will focus on the design and implementation of electronic hardware that will automate the process of thermally stressing components in a cyclical fashion. An in-built data logger will collect performance information from the devices under test while monitoring the frequency and depth of the temperature cycles using several thermocouples.

Project: UoMBSat1 - Internship
Supervisor: Dr Ing. Marc A. Azzopardi 
Status: Completed 
Funding: Research Group
Student 1: Fabien Brulport
Student 2: James McElhatton
Date: Summer 2016
Sponsor: École polytechnique de Lausanne

Pico-Satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) experience a very slight amount of residual atmospheric drag due to the rarefied gases of the exosphere. This may or may not be sufficient to ensure that these satellites renter from orbit within a prescribed limit of 25 years. This study will develop and evaluate mathematical models, through simulation, for estimating the average drag on the UoMBSat1 PocketQube in order to devise what additional de-orbiting equipment will be necessary.


https://www.um.edu.mt/research/astrionics/projects