Swarm of 3D Printed CubeSats to Be Launched from ISS in 2021


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Negotiations are underway to launch the first round of satellites from the International Space Station (ISS) in 2021. As part of an interdisciplinary project dubbed “Swarm of Small Spacecraft”, engineers from the Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) in Russia will 3D print CubeSat enclosures for at least five satellites that will be released into orbit. The main goal of the experiment is to test the possibility of automated interaction of space objects, particularly in navigation and communications tasks. TPU’s Student Mission Control Center (MCC) will track and oversee the equipment from Earth using a satellite control system and making sure that the miniature spacecraft respond to all of their requests. 

“The satellites will have to perform construction on command, move in orbit, keep formation, interact with Earth and with each other, changing and coordinating their position based on the data received,” said Andrey Kolomeitsev, assistant of TPU’s Department of Electronic Engineering and operator of the MCC. “At the MCC we will make sure that the satellites perform their function, track trajectories, receive telemetry information, monitor the condition of the engines, and if necessary, send commands to the vehicles to ensure realigning.”

Created by students and instructors, the MCC is part of TPU’s Virtual Design Center (VDC) for Space Engineering and trains students for flight control of small spacecraft in orbit, promoting interest in the rocket and space industries as well as helping them achieve innovative technological solutions.

Students at the Mission Control Center (MCC) monitoring the launch of the Tomsk-TPU-120 satellite (Image courtesy of Tomsk Polytechnic University)

To control the group of CubeSats, the team will require an antenna that can provide reception at all times and in any kind of weather; an automated system; equipment capable of receiving and processing information simultaneously from all spacecraft; and an experienced team. According to Alexey Yakovlev, director of TPU’s School of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies, students and post-graduate students at TPU already have vast experience handling satellite transmissions and operations. In 2017, Tomsk-TPU-120, a five-kilogram nanosatellite 3D printed by TPU students and staff using dynamic modeling, was deployed to orbit by hand during a Russian spacewalk on the ISS. At the time, cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Sergei Ryazansky simply opened the exit hatch of one of the docking compartments, uncovered the satellite, turned on its power system, and released it into outer space.

TPU has the technical capability and expertise to receive and process information and manage satellite constellations. At the MCC, students are trained to receive signals from satellites flying over the Russian city of Tomsk. Whether it is a Chinese satellite transmitting its callsign in Morse code or the institute’s own 3D printed Tomsk-TPU-120 satellite transmitting telemetry, these routine tasks will come in handy next year when multiple satellites begin orbiting in space. Moreover, they are prepared to deal with CubeSat malfunctions, knowing how to fix any spacecraft problems that may arise due to space dust, collisions, space weather, and internal glitches.

The Tomsk-TPU-120 microsatellite held by cosmonaut at the ISS (Image courtesy of YouTube/Roscosmos Media)

Students and staff at TPU were invited to take part in the project by Alexander Chernyavsky, advisor to the general director of the Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia), the prime developer and contractor of the Russian crewed spaceflight program. As reported by the news agency TASS, 15 Russian organizations and universities will be involved in the space experiment which encompasses the development of the CubeSats as well as a launch platform device to be located on the ISS. Asides from TPU, other known participants in the project include the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, RSC Energia, and Samara developers, who have been tasked with creating special software to control the swarm of CubeSats, which will have heightened capabilities for receiving and transmitting information.

“In the future, space traffic will become much more active, and a multi-agent interaction will be important, so it is necessary to test control technologies today. Which is why this is a very important experiment,” said Kolomeitsev.

The interface will be available not only to TPU participants in the experiment but also to experts from other universities that are members of the consortium. In order to allocate frequencies to each satellite, TPU reported that work is currently underway with the State Commission on Radio Frequencies (SCRF), part of the Ministry of Digital Development, Telecommunications, and Mass Media of the Russian Federation.

Designing CubeSat bodies using 3D printing technology for cheaper, faster missions is not new, as many agencies, startups, and universities have been doing it for a few years. The miniature satellites are ideal for encouraging students to send projects to orbit, and even space agencies encourage students to develop their own CubeSats, like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with its CubeSat Launch initiative for high schools, universities, and nonprofits or the European Space Agency (ESA)’s CubeSat education program called Fly your Satellite!, providing university students the chance to develop their own space missions. For the Russian engineers at TPU, creating small multi-purpose satellites has been one of their priorities, particularly because having an on-orbit group of CubeSats would help them deal with many urgent problems related to agriculture, forest fires, climate change, and natural resources, as well as help test new technologies for space materials science. As space exploration moves forward, we will continue to discover projects that combine technologies and innovation, making satellite deployment to orbit available to more people than ever before.

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