The first satellite to be fully developed and built in Ireland is being developed by a group of students from University College Dublin’s (UCD’s) Schools of Physics and Mechanical and Materials Engineering, with the support of staff from both schools. The satellite is expected to be delivered to the European Space Agency (ESA) in early 2021.

Ireland’s first satellite to be fully developed, researched and built in the country is known as Educational Irish Research Satellite (EIRSAT-1), and it is funded by a combination of the ESA, the Irish Research Council, Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, as well as support from UCD. The project started in 2016, when UCD put together a proposal to the ESA for their ‘Fly your Satellite!’ campaign.

One of the students involved in the project from the School of Physics, Rachel Dunwoody is understandably excited to be a part of the historic project. “I never imagined, starting out as a UCD Science undergraduate, that I would end up working on Ireland’s First Satellite, especially so early on in my career. Everyone on the team is excited to be a part of this milestone project in the development of Ireland’s space sector.”

“I joined the project in 2018 but the EIRSAT-1 story starts in 2016 when ESA released a Fly Your Satellite! call. EIRSAT-1 put in a proposal and was one of the university teams to be selected in May 2017 for the ESA Fly Your Satellite! Programme,” added Dunwoody. “Since then many students have worked on the project to get us to where we are today, the satellite design had to be developed and different demonstration models of the experiments on board were built and tested.”

The project is led by a large group of students from both schools, with staff aiding in an advisory capacity, supervising the overall project and supporting the activities of the PhD, Masters and Post-Doc students.

The EIRSAT-1 team receiving the runner up prize at last years Research Impact Competition. From left to right: Assoc Prof Sheila McBreen, Lana Salmon, Jessica Erkal, Seyedmasoud Emam, Derek O’Callaghan, Dr Ronan Wall, Dr David Murphy, Fergal Marshall, Jack Reilly, Rachel Dunwoody, Joe Thompson, Favour Okosun, Sarah Walsh, Assoc Prof Willi O’Connor, Joe Mangan, Rakhi Rajagopalan, Maeve Doyle, Asst Prof David McKeown, Prof Lorraine Hanlon. Photo: UCD School of Physics

Rakhi Rajagopalan Nair, one of the students involved in the project from the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, expressed the importance of the project being led by the students. “The best part about the project is that students can make direct choices on the satellite’s goals, the components used or any other mission related decisions which really brings out that feeling of ‘our satellite’.”

“It is really wonderful to have worked on different phases of developing a Cubesat in your early career and also getting trained and learning from professionals of the European Space Agency (ESA),” added Rajagopalan Nair. “I also got the opportunity to assist in performing different tests at the ESA test facility in Belgium which was like a dream come true.”

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has not hampered the progress of the project, as the original delivery date to the ESA is still expected to be met. The team of students has been working during the lockdown, often with a single person operating inside the clean room, while other members of the team watch via a camera and monitor setup.

“COVID – 19 only affected my research to a certain extent as I couldn’t perform certain tests which required the use of laboratory equipment and direct presence in the university labs,” said Rajagopalan Nair. “The team had to work remotely but we could perform a few tests in the cleanrooms. We worked on documentation during this phase by updating the documents related to all previous tests.”

Dunwoody also mentioned the unorthodox software being used in order to monitor the project and the components that still need to be tested. “The week before lockdown, the cleanroom was configured for remote operation of the satellite. A private YouTube stream is used to monitor the hardware in the cleanroom and Discord is used for operators to converse during satellite testing and share screens to see the outputs of the on-board computer.

“This remote access has allowed us to continue flight software development and test on the real satellite hardware,” added Dunwoody. “We are currently performing ‘Mini MIssion Tests’ to develop our operations procedures for the full Mission Test. We are also using this time to update our documentation and prepare test procedures for EQM (Engineering Qualification Model) environmental testing which will take place in the ESA.”

“We are constantly learning on the job and the project is providing valuable experience for the students. It is also allowing us to develop relations with Irish industries and provide flight heritage for Irish technologies,” said Dunwoody.

The satellite is not only the first to be researched, developed, tested and built in Ireland. It is also unusually small for for a satellite of it’s significance and abilities. EIRSAT-1 is the size of a shoebox, being 10 x 10 x 22 centimetres in size.

IMG_0312 (1)
From left to right: Joe Thompson, Jack Reilly [background], David Murphy, Maeve Doyle and Sarah Walsh work on the small satellite at the European Space Agency’s facility in Belgium for a Fit and Functional Check . Photo: UCD School of Physics
Dunwoody detailed all of the novel innovations that the team have developed for the EIRSAT-1 project. “We are flying a novel gamma-ray detector, GMOD, which is being developed in UCD. We are working with Irish company, ENBIO Ltd., to monitor the in-flight performance of their thermal spacecraft treatments. Our third experiment, Wave Based Control, is a novel attitude control algorithm, developed in the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, which will be tested for the first time in space on EIRSAT-1.”

As for the lecturers, they are equally exited to be part of Irish and international history. “Well it is definitely historic, [I’m] very happy to be part of it,” said Dr Ronan Wall, from the UCD School of Physics.

“Obviously there’s the ground-breaking element of what the mission is, which is the first Irish spacecraft, but as well as that it is the privilege of working with the team that I am working with, which is just some incredible young men and women that are incredibly able, they are very capable, intelligent, resourceful, determined.”

“It is vital for the Irish space sector that we have graduates who understand the systems engineering approaches required for delivering large space projects,” said Dr David McKeown, a lecturer in the UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. “That’s exactly what EIRSAT-1 is providing. Yes, I hope this is the first of many, the capabilities are now in place within UCD to design and test space qualified hardware, that’s an exciting future!”

The future for the students is equally as exciting, as they will continue to be able to work with the satellite after it has been launched. “Once the satellite is launched, we will enter the operations phase of the EIRSAT-1 mission,” said Dunwoody.

“We will initiate communication with EIRSAT-1 from the ground station being developed on the roof of the UCD School of Physics. During a commissioning phase we will make sure the satellite is functioning properly and then we will start taking science data from our experiments on board. We expect to have about 29 minutes of communication with EIRSAT-1 everyday,” said Dunwoody.

“I hope to continue working on EIRSAT-1 as a PhD through the operations phase of the mission,” added Rajagopalan Nair. “After that I would like to enter the space industry sector and apply what I have learnt during the EIRSAT-1 mission to future projects.”

The team will continue to work on the satellite project until they hand over the satellite to the ESA, before the official launch date is booked and confirmed. From there, UCD students will be able to continue learning through the information gathered from EIRSAT-1, with future space developments the ultimate goal for UCD’s space research.

Stephen Kisbey-Green – Co-Editor