Science and Technology

Técnico prepares to put the first Portuguese university satellite into orbit

The first university satellite fully developed and manufactured in Portugal, the ISTsat-1, will be launched into space on Ariane 6 maiden flight, in October 2023. The functional tests, carried out at Taguspark campus under the supervision of the European Space Agency, have been successful.

The IST NanosatLab clean room, recently inaugurated by Instituto Superior Técnico and Instituto de Telecomunicações (IT) at Taguspark campus, hosted the final integration of the ISTSat-1, Técnico’s first CubeSat, which also stands out as the first university satellite fully developed and manufactured in Portugal. The project went through several stages of development, involving many hours of work since its creation in 2017, when it was one of the projects selected by the European Space Agency (ESA).

It is estimated that about 50 people, including students and professors, have actively contributed to the success of the project, with more than 20 master’s dissertations written. Rui Rocha, Técnico professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (DEEC), researcher at IT and one of the founders of IST NanosatLab, explains “this project involved many people, a lot of work, several stages of testing, so it is not something that was taken lightly. There is a great deal of learning here. The knowledge provided by the project will remain and will pass on to students. It has a tremendous impact from a teaching point of view.”

The launch of ISTSat-1 and other CubeSats participating in the European Fly Your Satellite (FYS!) project is planned for October 2023. The flight will hitch a ride on the new Ariane 6 maiden flight. “It is important because it is the first flight of this new launcher, which we hope will be a major player in the future. And ISTSat-1 will be one of the first passengers of this launch”, says Dr Loris Franchi, CubeSat Systems Engineer and Environmental Test Engineer at Redu Space Services for ESA, who supervised integration and functional carried out on 9th and 10th February.

Loris Franchi started out as a student in this type of project which, in his view, provide important learning. “I strongly believe that learn by doing is key in education. And now, that I am working for ESA and dealing with many projects like ISTSat-1, I can definitely say that it is fundamental. We have many students signing up for this initiative, who are eager to learn how to build their own satellite and eventually launch it.”

The final integration is one of the most critical steps, since a tighter screw or the wrong positioning of a cable can result in the damage of some essential parts for the future operation of the satellite. Tension is high and “there are several worst-case scenarios”, shares João Paulo Monteiro, professor at DEEC and responsible for ISTSat-1’s systems engineering.

However, ISTSat-1 passed all functional tests after its final assembly, so it will move on to the next phase. These tests included the verification of several systems fundamental to CubeSat’s operation. Although it is a time-consuming process, the goal is worth it. “This is the kind of engineering I imagined doing when  I got into Técnico,” shares João Paulo Monteiro.

Testing in Belgium, launching in South America

Before launch, the ISTSat-1 will head to Belgium, where it will undergo vibration and thermal vacuum chamber testing, recreating the environmental conditions to which the satellite will be subjected during launch and in orbit, respectively. “After that, one of the most important milestones of the projetc is the pass the ESA Flight acceptance Review. The team will have to defend their project to a Board of ESA experts, which is difficult, as they are very attentive to detail, to ensure ISTSat-1 mission success.” says Loris Franchi. After the verification of all the documentation concerning the safety requirements that ISTSat-1 must meet to be launched with Ariane 6, the satellite will be installed in a container that will be integrated, in French Guiana, into the Ariane 6, together with other CubeSats.

“It is a major engineering project, even though the satellite is small. It has gone through a series of stages, it has the seal of approval from the ESA, which forces us to be rigorous and follow a well-defined standard. In some way, it makes the people involved in the project aware of what a demanding space project is”, stresses Rui Rocha. “I am looking forward to launching the satellite. It is the closing of an important cycle”, he says. If all goes well, in the last semester of the year, the team will be receiving the satellite’s information at the ground station on Taguspark campus, and will verify, by comparing the data received with reference data, if the satellite meets the expected list of functions and performance.

* The project was funded by Técnico, Instituto de Engenharia de Sistemas e Computadores: Investigação e Desenvolvimento (INESC-ID), Instituto de Telecomunicações (IT) and Instituto de Engenharia Mecânica (IDMEC). It also included the participation of researchers from the Institute for Systems and Robotics (ISR Lisboa), and the support of several companies related to the sector.

More information: Podcast “110 Histórias | 110 Objetos” – Episode 34 – ISTSAT-1: The 1st Portuguese Cubesat