UNSW Launches a Cubesat into the Thermosphere!

GPredict tracking EC0’s range of communication on our ground station

Fifteen years passed since Australians had last launched a satellite into space. In early 2017, this interlude was interrupted by a team at UNSW who launched EC0, a CubeSat into low Earth orbit. The CubeSat industry, although in its infancy, has allowed for an affordable method of building and launching satellites into space. The CubeSat was built by the Australian Centre for Space Enginer Research (ACSER) while BLUEsat provided the groundstation.

GPredict tracking EC0’s range of communication on our groundstation - view of the earth showing radio ranges for GOMX1, UNSW-ECO, ISS, and RS-40
GPredict tracking EC0’s range of communication on our groundstation


Moving at approximately 28,000 kilometres per hour and equipped with a mass spectrometer, an instrument used to measure the masses within a sample by detecting ion charged particles, EC0 sought to extend our limited knowledge regarding the thermosphere. In doing so, EC0 is capable of aiding scientists in undercovering unexpected phenomena pertaining to this largely unknown region of the atmosphere. Further developing our understanding of weather models, improving GPS and radio transmitted communication methods while deepening our understanding of the interaction that the sun’s radiation has with earth are all within the scope of EC0’s potential. First launched to the ISS and subsequently sent into orbit, EC0 formed part of the QB50 project, an international network consisting of Cubesats built by universities from around the world whose collective input help advance scientific research in this particular region of the atmosphere.

Artist impression of the EC0 cubesat orbiting the stratosphere
Artist’s impression of EC0 orbiting the Earth


In the true fashion of space launches, EC0’s launch wasn’t without its problems. Complications quickly arose as groundstation was unable to send or receive any signals to EC0 preventing any communication from occurring. It was believed that the satellites antenna had failed to deploy upon departure into space. After several months of unsuccessful experiments, the use of a high powered European satellite dish was employed to send extra powerful signals to EC0, and for the first time a communication was finally successful. This gave ACSER the clue that they were looking for and after further deliberation, finally the issue was detected. The groundstation was mistakenly transmitting signals to another satellite, ‘Challenger’, as both the Cubesat’s Two Line Elements (TLE), a sort of barcode, had been mixed up before the launch. Upon detection, the complication was promptly corrected, allowing EC0 to truly begin its mission. BLUEsat Satellite CTO, and groundstation lead Timothy Guo reflected upon this moment, claiming the “image of success is strange and there is no euphoria for success, just relief for a problem being solved. Successful communication meant we entered into a new phase of the mission and the fact that you’ve successfully sent a Cubesat into orbit only really hits about a week later”.

A replica of EC0’s internal structure.
A replica of EC0’s internal structure


For the initial six months of the mission, communication with EC0 was only achievable at the time it would pass over Australia within its orbit path. This was highly problematic as it often occurred inconveniently between midnight and the earlier hours of the morning. To combat this limitation, ACSER recently installed sophisticated software, allowing for automation of the communication process. At this point in time, a large portion of EC0’s instruments are fully operational, already collecting data about such a fascinating region of the atmosphere.

Due to the high friction environment that EC0 occupies, it’s lifespan is limited to two years. Upon completion of its mission in this period, earth’s gravity will drag EC0 towards its solid surface. The moment of impact will mimic a conventional meteorite crash, burning up when entering the atmosphere, slowing down due to gravity and having very low chances of impact repercussions.

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