Small satellite opens high-tech research opportunities

The launch on 20 June of the first Chilean-built satellite, developed by Universidad de Chile, is the latest and most ambitious involvement of a Latin American university in space programmes.

In Colombia, Sergio Arboleda University launched the country’s first satellite in 2007, called Libertad I, and is currently working on a second one.

In Peru, the Pontificia Universidad Católica, the National University of Engineering and Universidad Alas Peruanas have built satellites too.

In Uruguay, the engineering faculty of the Universidad de la República has followed suit. Chile’s Concepción and Austral universities are also engaged in space programmes.

These programmes are seen by universities as providing teachers and students with a unique opportunity to deepen scientific knowledge, improve engineering skills and push technological frontiers.

“The objective of our space programme is to open opportunities for talented students to involve themselves in vanguard projects … as well as to show the government that its [state] universities can be leaders in technological development if they have the means,” says Patricio Aceituno, dean of Universidad de Chile’s faculty of physical and mathematical sciences, where the new Chilean satellite was built.

Universities also value space programmes as a means of helping their countries get into space and as a source of commercial spin-offs.

“Our hope is that the credibility afforded by this experience will put us among the world leaders in the small satellites industry,” says Marcos Díaz, a researcher who works on Universidad de Chile’s satellite programme.

For him, the success of their space programme is predicated on whether “it shows ongoing progress in the formation of advanced human capital, in the development of new technologies, in getting funds and in facing new challenges in the scientific exploration of space”.

The mini-satellites’ boom

Universidad de Chile climbed on the bandwagon of a two-decades-old shift in space technology from multi-goal, large and expensive satellites to a faster and cheaper approach exemplified by CubeSats.

CubeSats are small satellites made up of modular frames that can be combined to form larger, but still small satellites. These frames are commercially available and are not too expensive, making them an ideal vehicle for universities to conduct high-level research.

In the United States, the majority of CubeSats – which were conceived in California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and at Stanford University – have been developed by universities and schools that are offered launch facilities by NASA.

Universities in most other countries have to pay dearly to put their satellites into orbit. For example, Universidad de Chile’s CubeSat was launched by India and Uruguay’s by Russia.

The SUCHAI family of satellites

Universidad de Chile’s CubeSats are called SUCHAI, the English acronym for ‘Satellite of the University of Chile for Aerospace Investigation’. The chosen name also resembles the word ‘suyai’, meaning hope in Mapudungun, the language of Chile’s largest indigenous group, the Mapuches.

SUCHAI I, launched last month, is composed of only one module. SUCHAI II and III, two larger CubeSats of three modules each, are under construction by the faculty of physical and mathematical sciences in conjunction with Universidad de Chile’s physics department and its faculty of sciences.

Universidad de Chile put up the US$150,000 spent on the SUCHAI I project. Costs were cut back by simplifying technologies and miniaturising systems to save on space, energy consumption and weight.

The components of the SUCHAI satellites are bought in the US because they have been tested in space (have a flight heritage, in the jargon).

“By using ready-made parts we can put our money, human resources and time into payload, software development and testing of the satellite,” Alex Becerra, one of the scientists involved in the development of the SUCHAI satellites, told University World News.

Chilean researchers and students developed the instruments for the three experiments that SUCHAI I will carry out. These are: measuring the physical behaviour of an out-of-balance electronic circuit force; testing techniques – developed by researchers from the faculty of physical and mathematical sciences – for predicting faults in batteries; and measuring the density of electrons in ionospheric plasma.

They also fabricated a small camera for capturing pictures of the satellite and of Earth and developed the novel software that controls the satellite.

The SUCHAI team also designed a mock-up of the satellite, which they will use to acquaint the general public with the satellite and its functions.

It is highly likely that many other universities in developing countries will use CubeSats as an accessible pathway to advance science and technology, provide exciting education opportunities for their students and teachers and assist their nations in developing space programmes for civilian uses.