Opinion Satellite

Nano building blocks in space

Nanosatellites are breaking down the cost barrier to innovation while building critical on-the-job expertise in the rarefied realm of satellite technology
Mohamed Mahmoud Ibrahim, Ph.D candidate, Kyushu Institute of Technology, Japan

Reading books or attending lectures cannot result in a satellite,” states Mohamed Mahmoud Ibrahim . Speaking to SatellitePro ME, Mohamed Mahmoud Ibrahim, a Ph.D candidate at the Kyushu Institute of Technology, Japan, believes that aspirants to the space industry must experience the complete cycle of designing, building and testing. “Even better if the student can experience the launch and operations’ aspects as well,” he adds.

Currently completing his Ph.D at the Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan, as part of the Programme on Nanosatellite Technologies, known as the PNST, at Kyutech Japan, Ibrahim is gaining firsthand experience in building satellites. The Centre for Nanosatellite Testing was established in 2010 at the Kyushu Institute of Technology (KIT) partially supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS).

Explaining the course, Ibrahim states: “The KIT nanosatellite project currently has about 25 graduate and undergraduate students working together and they are responsible for all the processes including conceptual study, design, fabrication, testing and operation. For the graduate student, the official educational programme includes learning systems engineering, space environment, project management though project-based learning and many other specialised courses, writing a Ph.D thesis and extracting a state-of-the-art research element from the project work.”

Ibrahim believes a university-like environment is more suitable for space education than space agencies or satellite manufacturing facilities.

Professor of Astronomy John Clarke, Director of the Centre for Space Physics at Boston University, concurs. He believes that involving undergraduate and graduate students at the core of research projects should be a more widespread practice.

He is currently at the helm of the BUSAT programme (Boston University Student

Satellite for Applications and Training) that is a student-driven initiative. The team made up of students and faculty has been working for two years to develop a versatile, affordable satellite prototype.

Value of a long-term fellowship

Egyptian-national Ibrahim underscores the importance of creating a long-term fellowship for satellite capacity building.

“You learn through failures during the tests and through the efforts necessary to correct the defects. The long-term fellowship enables students to study abroad and gain experience through on-the-job training and participate in a satellite project as a team member not as a guest. The experience is invaluable in terms of building a facility from scratch in the student’s home country.”

In 2009, KIT answered the UN-led call for collaborations during the 27th International Symposium on Space Technology and Sciences, held in Tsukuba, Japan, explains Ibrahim.

“The objective was to respond to the growing interest in many countries to establish indigenous capacities in basic space technology and promote international cooperation and information exchange in capacity building in basic space technology.

“The Centre for Nanosatellite Testing provides all the environmental test services with the exception of radiation, for nanosatellites up to 50cm x 50cm x 50cm and weighing 50 kgs. With equipment valued in excess of USD 2 million, around 15 nanosatellites have been tested for Japanese universities or industries.“

Need for comprehensive, standard curriculum

Ibrahim reiterates that you cannot teach students to build satellites through equations and lectures.

“It is crucial to educate the engineers on the entire process of building a satellite – satellite manufacturers would save considerably on costs. Some engineering colleges have a satellite engineering course, but they do not offer a complete curriculum. Now a global attempt led by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, is being made to arrive at a standardised satellite engineering curriculum.”

The programme at KIT has evidently found traction with nearly 83 applications worldwide for the class of 2013, reveals Ibrahim.

“Satellite students cannot restrict themselves to one specialty – they should know something about thermal design, mechanical design, electrical design and so on, while specialising in one field. Other than lectures, you need hands-on expertise. In places like Surrey, Kyushu Institute of Technology (KIT) and Tokyo University, students are actually building satellites. The interesting thing is the innovative solutions the Masters and Ph.D students are introducing that can be migrated to larger satellites.”

A bridge between satellite and commercial off-the-shelf technology

The students at Boston University are, for instance, exploring the concept of plug and play that is ubiquitous in the world of personal computing but has yet to catch on in the rarefied field of satellite design.

STRaND-2, a twin nanosatellite mission from Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) and the University of Surrey tested a novel in-orbit docking system based on the Microsoft Xbox Kinect games-controller technology.

The launch of amateur radio satellite Horyu-2 was built by students at the Kyushu

Institute of Technology (KIT). Apart from demonstrating the first in the world 350V high voltage power generation in space without any discharge, the Horyu-2 mission aims at detecting the impact micro-debris has on the surface of satellites, among other objectives.

While KIT through the UN/Japan Long-Term fellowship is providing a multicultural learning environment for Japanese students,

Ibrahim believes it helps build expertise in emerging countries such as his country, Egypt, as it embarks on its own ambitious space programme.

About Mohamed Mahmoud Ibrahim

He received a B.Sc in Communication and Electronics Engineering in 2000 from the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University in Egypt. He worked in the development of small satellites for earth observation for 10 years with the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences/Egyptian

Space Programme, Egypt. Currently he works as a research assistant at Kyushu Institute of Technology, KitaKyushu, Japan, while pursuing his Ph.D. degree. He is the project leader of the Horyu-V Space Environment Exploration Satellite.