EIRSAT-1 – Just over 66 years after the first satellite, the Sputnik-1, was launched into space by the now-defunct Soviet Union, Ireland has joined the ranks of the world’s nations who have taken to the stars in the name of science, technology, and human curiosity.

The launch of Sputnik-1 in October 1957 kickstarted the Space Race, a competition between Cold War rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union, to see who could be the first to go where humankind had yet to go – space. While the Space Race is long over, Ireland’s extra-terrestrial endeavours are only getting started.

Eirsat-1, UCD's satellite - Photo credit, UCD
Eirsat-1, UCD’s satellite – Photo credit, UCD

Ireland can now proudly add its name to the list of over 80 countries that have followed in the footsteps of Sputnik-1 by sending satellites into space thanks to the hard work and dedication of UCD students over the span of the past 6 years. These efforts paid off recently with the launch of the Educational Irish Research Satellite-1 or EIRSAT-1, Ireland’s first-ever satellite. The satellite left Earth from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard a Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket and the satellite was later confirmed to be functional in Earth’s low orbit.

EIRSAT-1’s journey to the stars began all the way back in 2017 when the idea for the satellite was submitted to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ‘Fly Your Satellite!’ programme. The programme is designed and managed by the ESA’s Education Office in close collaboration with universities from ESA Member States.

The initiative aims to provide students with hands-on experience to design, build and launch their own satellite. This sees students embarking on a full space mission from beginning to end and involvement at all stages with expert support from the ESA.

The incredible achievement of building Ireland’s first-ever satellite is the product of the contributions of more than 50 UCD students and has spanned over 20,000 hours of troubleshooting and 1,000 hours of training. Testing on the satellite was conducted at the ESA’s Education CubeSat Support Facility in Belgium and students gained vital skills in communication and spacecraft operations in Darmstadt, Germany. The satellite is estimated to have cost approximately €1.5 million to develop. It is hoped that EIRSAT-1 will be active for three to four years before de-orbiting.

What does the satellite look like?

Only a tad bigger than a house brick and measuring 10.7 x 10.7 x 22.7cm, EIRSAT-1 proves that bigger is not always better! The small, but mighty satellite is known as a variety of satellites known as a CubeSat due to its shape and the satellite has three payloads or components, each with its own individual scientific objective.

Firstly, the gamma-ray module (GMOD) aims to study gamma-ray bursts, the most luminous explosions in the universe which occur as a result of events such as the deaths of stars or solar flares. When hit by a gamma ray, a crystal in the gamma-ray detector produces light, which is then converted into an electrical signal by sensors which scientists in UCD can use to study these cosmic events. The mission aims to assess the capability of this technology for use in next-generation gamma-ray missions

Next, the Wave Based Control (WBC) module aims to test a new method of measuring attitude, which is the satellite’s orientation and orbit control. Designed by the Dynamics and Control Group in the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, EIRSAT-1 will test the viability of this new “wave-based control algorithm” method as an alternative to the standard Altitude Determination and Control methods. The innovative method has been tested in simulations, but has, until now, never been used in space.

Last but not least, is the ENBIO Module (EMOD). This module aims to perform the first low orbit tests on the performance of two new materials, known as SolarBlack and SolarWhite, developed by Irish company ENBIO. The novel materials coat the satellite and will have their thermal properties tested aboard EIRSAT-1 and the tests will give valuable information about their thermal durability for the development of future satellites. The team will communicate and receive data from EIRSAT-1 via a command centre located at UCD. Together, the information translated from EIRSAT-1 will provide the answers to some pressing questions about space.

No mission is without its challenges and the UCD team faced, and more importantly overcame, their fair share throughout the EIRSAT-1 project, including the COVID-19 pandemic and issues around the legality of Ireland’s first space mission. EIRSAT-1 was recognised as an official mission in 2022 by the Government of Ireland and received funding from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Additional support for the project was provided by the Irish Research Council, Science Foundation Ireland, Openet, and Enterprise.

“What a satisfying moment this must be for the Irish team: a remarkable first for the scientific community in Ireland,” UCD President Orla Feely said about the historic success.

EIRSAT- 1 has been complemented by an extensive outreach programme. A series of creative writing workshops were held by UCD’s School of English, Drama and Film and the Museum of Literature, for school children. A poem created by Irish schoolchildren is inscribed on the satellite in the shape of a spiral galaxy. Entitled ‘All Ways Home” it is a fitting nod to the project’s Irish heritage and the broader significance of this moment for Irish science. The inscription includes the following fitting lines:

“Our insignificance! Our planet a crumb on the fabric of spacetime, sharing the same sky, you and I, wherever feet are anchored. I will write your name on the moon with my fingertips”

Hannah Carpenter – Contributor