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.