Students Prepare to Launch Home-made Satellite
An artist's conception of the SSETI Express satellite flying over Europe in Earth orbit.
Credit: Morten Bisgaard, Aalborg University.

A microsatellite built largely from donated parts in university workshops across Europe is just over one week from launch. It is the first in a trio of student-built spacecraft that will ultimately reach for the Moon.

It took only 18 months for more than 400 students - spread across 23 universities and 12 countries - to design and build the SSETI Express spacecraft. Set to launch from Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Sept. 30, the project is part an education effort by the European Space Agency (ESA) to boost student interest in space technology and offer some hands-on experience.

"The idea is for the students to benefit from the real experience," Philippe Willekens, education projects administrator for the ESA, told "I can say easily that this satellite was 99 percent made by them."

Student teams built SSETI Express subsystem-by-subsystem and communicated primarily through the Internet, though weekly chat sessions and twice-yearly workshops helped keep everyone on the same page.

"It was a great opportunity to learn a lot about high space technology," said Marcin Jagoda, who graduated from Poland's Wroclaw University of Technology in July where his team developed the satellite's communications system, in an e-mail interview. "I'm really looking forward to launch."

Satellites within satellites

SSETI Express, short for Student Space Exploration Techology Initiative Express, is a boxy satellite about the size of a small washing machine.

The 136-pound (62-kilogram) spacecraft is expected to snap photographs of Earth, test a cold-gas attitude control system and function as a radio transponder for amateur radio operators.

The spacecraft will also serve as a mothership for three picosatellites, tiny cubes just under four inches (10 centimeters) wide, built by universities in Germany, Japan and Norway. The picosatellites will be ejected into space on orbit.

"So that's another challenge," Willekens said. "The three [picosatellites] were also built by student teams."

Altogether, the spacecraft cost the ESA Education Department less than $121,185 (100,000 euros) to piece together, thanks to donated material, equipment and expertise from participating universities and industry businesses, ESA officials said.

While there was a small bit of "shadow engineering" during SSETI Express' development, it was the students who handled the lion's share of the work, Willekens added.

"The biggest challenge is, from my point of view, the collaboration with the other teams," said Nils Harmsen, a fourth-year student at the University of Stuttgart in Germany who worked on SSETI Express' propellant system, in an e-mail interview. "You have to take care of all your team's interfaces with other systems...if the interfaces aren't alright, it will cost the whole project a lot of time and nerves."

Building inspiration

ESA officials plan SSETI Express to be the first of three microsatellites built by student teams.

Also in the planning stages are European Student Earth Orbiter (ESEO), an Earth-watching spacecraft, and the European Student Moon Orbiter (ESMO), which are expected to build on the performance of Express mission.

"We'll learn from our lessons and we'll optimize," Willekens said. "I am convinced this is one of the best ways to educate."

While SSETI Express will launch atop a Russian Kosmos 3M rocket later this month, the 264-pound (120-kilogram) ESEO spacecraft - nearly twice as heavy as its predecessor - will fly aboard an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket slated for a 2008 liftoff. The lunar orbiter is scheduled to fly sometime between 2010 and 2012, and is expected to conduct experiments during the flights to and from the Moon, ESA officials said.

Students can also get involved in much more than just building a spacecraft, since there are legal and public affairs functions that also must be fulfilled, Willekens said.

A little competition

In addition to boosting student interest, the ESA is also hoping to attract the amateur radio community.

The space agency is hosting a world-wide contest to radio amateurs, calling on them to tune into SSETI Express' broadcast and retrieve any data they can gather. ESA officials are offering free downloadable software and access to the satellite's UHF and S-band communications systems for interested participants.

The first person to retrieve, decode and submit a transmission from the SSETI Express satellite will win a keen "I heard it first" t-shirt, ESA officials said.

The amateur radio operator who submits the largest number of valid telemetry packets from the spacecraft to SSETI Express mission control by 12:00 a.m. Jan. 1, 2006 will snag an invite to the Student Technology Education Conference 2006 in Germany.

More information on both contests is available at the Radio Amateur Connection portion of the student-run SSETI Mission website here.

"I'm fully satisfied with the work they've done," Willekens said of the SSETI Express student team. "It was hard work, very hard work."

Meanwhile, SSETI teams continue to work on their next project, the ESEO satellite now two years from its planned spaceflight.

"SSETI Express will be testing some of the hardware we will use in ESEO," explained aeronautical engineering student Christina Trobajo, who is coordinating an ESEO team at Imperial College, adding that the project pays off in spades. "We're all very excited about it, as it's our desire to see our work in space."