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When you think of outer space, what would you relate it to? My guess is physics, astronomy and maybe black holes. What about subjects such as biology, ecology or geology? Sure, the exploration of our galaxy relies heavily on spacecrafts that bring astronauts there. However, in recent years, scientists have been studying planets both in and out of our solar system in search for the ones habitable for human beings. Their soil composition, native microbes and physical properties are being studied. A renowned example would be Mars.

An artists impression of the planet TRAPPIST-1f.

The TRAPPIST-1f is one of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, discovered in early 2017 by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

Illustrated above is the possible surface of the planet.

Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the GreenSat team, there are currently more biologists than engineers. However, in BLUEsat UNSW as a whole, the engineering teams dwarf the biology team, which could make the experience quite daunting when you first get on board. Since we are only a small division of students, each of us work on our own individual projects rather than working in pairs or groups. Such projects may include researching growth rates of certain bacteria species, finding out how chemicals circulate through plants with the help of microorganisms or even coming up with a simple experimental plan for our future projects. Sounds fun right?!

So how exactly do we work with the engineers? While the engineers come up with how to build the awesome gadgets and devices, we are the ones to relay them the parameters of those builds. The beginning of all scientific projects starts with the solid foundation of background research. In this part of the study, both biologists and engineers take part in as we all have our own areas of expertise, so everyone can share our discoveries afterwards during meetings. After combining our research, the engineers will be informed of the requirements needed for the devices built before deciding on how to build it, what materials are needed, how should the design look (we even have an Industrial Design student helping us out!) and a deadline for its completion. Subsequently, testing and modifications are needed to ensure the satellite is in full function for launch.

As a biologist, my knowledge of physics and mathematics is very limited, which is why communication between the engineering and biology departments is vital. No, we don’t use scientific terminology in Latin or sophisticated 50-page experiments to confuse them. Instead, we try to present the general idea of our work to them in simple words and then go into greater detail. Effective science communication is after all an important skill learnt as science students, as you are not always presenting to your fellow scientists.

If you think this sounds easy, then don’t stop reading, because the duration of these procedures combined could take years! In 2016, as part of the QB50 mission, UNSW launched its CubeSat – EC0, of which from research to finalising the build took around 5 years. During the background research stage, problems upon problems are faced and we need to keep searching for solutions. One of the many challenges faced sometimes is creating more problems upon finding a fix, which is very frustrating. In addition, don’t forget about the spacecraft’s objective in space. You don’t want to launch a device and just let it burn up in the atmosphere for nothing. Subsequent monitoring and communication with it through telecommunications systems are crucial to ensure that it is functioning properly in space.

An artists impression of UNSW's EC0 satellite.

Close-up image of the UNSW-EC0.

Image credits: ASCER, UNSW

If you are a scientist interested in the space race, there is no need to worry about fitting into the world of engineers. There is always help needed and you will always find a cool project to work on. Does this tickle your fancy? Join the GreenSat team to find out how you can get involved!