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Students Design Groundbreaking Satellite

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Published on Tuesday, 23 March 2021

In less than two semesters, the first cohort of students in the Interdisciplinary Space Master (ISM) have successfully conceived, designed and developed GOLDCREST, a CubeSat project launched as part of their studies with the aim to measure Earth soil moisture from space.

The team of ISM students collaborated remotely to conceive the 1U CubeSat, a small satellite measuring just 10 cm3. The satellite has been designed to measure soil moisture using GNSS reflectometry, where measurements are performed using GPS signals. “Measuring soil moisture is an active field of research in the world today, so choosing that as the focal point seemed a good goal,” says Dr. Thoemel, Head of the CubeSat laboratory who led the students in this endeavour.   

CubeSats have been a catalyst for change within the space industry. While they have been used experimentally in recent times, they are becoming increasingly popular with hundreds of launches scheduled for the next couple of years. 

“What is special about our satellite is its size. Using a CubeSat to perform these measurements would bring its technology to a wider audience,” he continues. Very small satellites are cheaper to produce, therefore the subsequent data collection could be available at a cheaper cost. In the same way that smartphone technology has been gradually filtered down at a lower price point over time, CubeSats such as GOLDCREST would allow for the analysis to be shared with smaller agricultural entities who ordinarily may not be able to afford access to such technology. 

A NASA mission with a similar goal is the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS). The project uses satellites 30 times bigger than GOLDCREST to measure wind speed over oceans with GPS to predict the occurrence of hurricanes.  

The GOLDCREST project and its entire mission was presented at the Asteroid Day event “Space Connects Us”, organised last year by the Asteroid Foundation and co-founded by astrophysicist and musician Dr. Brian May. Asteroid Day is the official United Nations’ day of global awareness and shares education about asteroids, their importance in our history as well as the role they play in our solar system. 

Speaking about the project, ISM student Natalya Stepanova said, “It was quite challenging, starting from the beginning, to work on the subsystems, but at the same time it has been fascinating to see how the project has been quickly evolving from the rough requirements and assumptions to the concrete design of a real CubeSat!”. 

Indeed, GOLDCREST is a great example of the project based learning approach of the Master’s programme, which aims to shape the next generation of space entrepreneurs, researchers and professionals in Luxembourg. The Master was launched in 2019, together with the Luxembourg Space Agency (LSA) and the Ministry of Economy. “The most valuable aspect of the ISM is the unique combination of the courses, which provides us with a 360°-degree overview of the space industry and connects us to experts in the field,” concluded fellow student Niloufer Asadi.   

But the journey of GOLDCREST has not ended there. “The next cohort of students will develop the mission further by looking into open design questions and answering them,” Dr. Thoemel shares. “The future of the project aims to refine GOLDCREST’s design and extend the satellites ability to measure soil moisture, into detecting bodies of water such as rivers.”

 

Dr. Jan Thoemel is a Research Scientist, head of the CubeSat Laboratory at SnT and a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Space Master. He received his Ph.D. in 2008 at RWTH Aachen University in Germany and the von Karman Institute in Belgium, where he researched the physics of gas surface interaction. Dr. Thoemel previously worked in the space sector, including for the European Space Agency, the Royal Institute for Space Aeronomy, GomSpace and the von Karman Institute. In his current research, he is investigating how aerodynamic and solar radiation forces can be used for orbital control to serve highly efficient remote sensing missions.