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Reach for the Sky: Israeli university develops nanosatellite to be launched into space

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The TAU-SAT1 nanosatellite, which was built by Tel Aviv University, will measure cosmic radiation around the earth

By ILANIT CHERNICK

Israeli researchers and engineers at Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) Nanosatellite Center have developed, built and are now testing its first nanosatellite, which is scheduled to be launched into space early next year.

The new Nanosatellite Center at the university is a new interdisciplinary endeavor of the Faculties of Engineering and Exact Sciences and the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. 

The nanosatellite, named TAU-SAT1, is undergoing pre-flight testing at the Japanese space agency JAXA. 

“It’s from Japan that the satellite will be sent to the United States, where it will ‘hitch a ride’ on a NASA and Northrop Grumman resupply spacecraft destined for the International Space Station in the first quarter of 2021,” the university said in a statement. “Once at the station, a robotic arm will release TAU-SAT1 into a low-earth orbit (LEO) around the Earth, approximately 400km above the Earth.

According to the university, the TAU-SAT1 is a research satellite, which will conduct several experiments while in orbit including measuring cosmic radiation in space.

Head of Tel Aviv University’s miniature satellite lab Dr. Ofer Amrani pointed out that “this is a nanosatellite, or miniature satellite, of the ‘CubeSat’ variety. 

“The satellite’s dimensions are 10 by 10 by 30 cm, the size of a shoebox, and it weighs less than 2.5 kg. TAU-SAT1 is the first nanosatellite designed, built and tested independently in academia in Israel,” he said.

Addressing one of the challenges that the team came up against while building and developing the nanosatellite was how to extract the data collected by the TAU-SAT1 satellite. 

Amrani explained that at an altitude of 400 km above sea level, the nanosatellite will orbit the earth at a dizzying speed of 27,600 km per hour, or 7.6 km per second. 

“At this speed, the satellite will complete an orbit around the Earth every 90 minutes,” he said.  “In order to collect data, we built a satellite station on the roof of the engineering building.”

He said that their station, which also serves as an amateur radio station, “includes a number of antennas and an automated control system. 

“When TAU-SAT1 passes ‘over’ the State of Israel, that is, within a few thousand-kilometer radius from the ground station’s receiving range, the antennas will track the satellite’s orbit and a process of data transmission will occur between the satellite and the station,” Amrani highlighted. “Such transmissions will take place about four times a day, with each one lasting less than 10 minutes. In addition to its scientific mission, the satellite will also serve as a space relay station for amateur radio communities around the world.” 

Above Image: The team of Tel Aviv University researchers, scientists and engineers working on the TAU-SAT1 at the new Nanosatellite Center.
Featured Image: The team of Tel Aviv University researchers, scientists and engineers hard at work in the Nanosatellite Center.
(Photo Credit: Tel Aviv University)

Amrani added that the satellite is expected to be active for several months “because it has no engine, its trajectory will fade over time as the result of atmospheric drag – it will burn up in the atmosphere and come back to us as stardust.”

Explaining the importance of  TAU-SAT1’s mission to measure cosmic radiation, Dr. Meir Ariel, director of the university’s Nanosatellite Center said that its “know that that there are high-energy particles moving through space that originate from cosmic radiation.”

“Our scientific task,” he said, “is to monitor this radiation, and to measure the flux of these particles and their products. It should be understood that space is a hostile environment, not only for humans but also for electronic systems.” 

Ariel emphasized that when these particles hit astronauts or electronic equipment in space, “they can cause significant damage” stressing that the scientific information collected by the university’s satellite “will make it possible to design means of protection for astronauts and space systems.” 

“To this end, we incorporated a number of experiments into the satellite, which was developed by the Space Environment Department at the Soreq Nuclear Research Center,” he added.

For the team at TAU’s Nanosatellite Center, this launch is just the beginning of its journey to joining the “new space” revolution. 

“The idea behind the new space revolution is to open space up to civilians as well,” Amrani said. “Our satellite was built and tested with the help of a team of students and researchers. Moreover, we built the infrastructure on our own – from the cleanrooms to the various testing facilities such as the thermal vacuum chamber, to the receiving and transmission station we placed on the roof.” 

He said that now that this infrastructure is set up, “we can begin to develop TAU-SAT2.” 

“The idea is that any researcher and any student, from any faculty at Tel Aviv University, or outside of it, will be able to plan and launch experiments into space in the future – even without being an expert in the field.,” Amrani added.

Adding to this, an academic head of the Nanosatellite Center, Prof. Colin Price said there “is a revolution” taking place “in the field of civilian space.”

Price pointed out that they are calling this “new space as opposed to the old space” because the space industry is no longer only dominated by giant companies with huge budgets and large teams of engineers could build satellites.  

“As a result of miniaturization and modulation of many technologies, today universities are building small satellites that can be developed and launched in less than 2 years, and at a fraction of the budget in the old space,” Price said, concluding that Tel Aviv University’s first nano-satellite “is ready for launch.”

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