About 200 students from 19 universities across Europe are working hard to get a satellite into lunar orbit in 2014.
Slovenians will design the on-board radar, Belgians will build a wide-angle camera, and Estonians will take ground control of the satellite. The project is taking place within the ESA’s Education Satellite Program, ESMO.
University of Tartu students will assemble the parts designed and built by the other participating universities and check the operational reliability of the satellite. After launch our students will be in charge of steering the satellite into lunar orbit and ensuring that it stays there.
The satellite’s weight and measurements set strict limits upon its useable load. The cubical satellite will weigh around 190 kg, and the sides measure 70 centimetres.
“Unlike the Apollo spacecraft, which just blasted towards the Moon, we need to rely on wits and gravitation to place the spacecraft safely in a lunar orbit,” says Silver Lätt, engineer at the UT Space and Military Technology work group and project manager of ESMO’s Estonian team.
This will be done using Lagrange point no. 1, or L1, a location between the Sun and the Earth where the gravitational pull of the Sun is balanced by the pull of the Earth. From L1 the satellite will slowly work its way towards the Moon. It will take ESMO six months in total to reach lunar orbit. Fuel can be used to adjust course only a couple of times.
“Finding a stable orbit around the Moon is complicated – the majority of satellites sent to orbit the Moon will sooner or later fall to the planet’s surface,” explains Lätt.
The site where the satellite will fall also needs to be carefully chosen to make sure that it can continue its work on the Moon.
The benefits of ESMO
Schools across Europe will have the opportunity to order exclusive snapshots of the Moon’s surface that can be used in astronomy classes.
The satellite’s on-board equipment will include radar for exploring the Moon’s surface, as only the front side of the Moon is visible to Earth-based radars.
In addition to these tasks, ESMO will also test a lunar internet protocol called LunaNet, which in the future will enable communication between the satellites orbiting the Moon, those which have landed and are working on its surface, and the ground control station.
All of the satellite components will be built by students, who will be tutored by engineers from the UK satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology and the European Space Agency.
Estonian student participation in the project is made possible by a collaboration agreement signed between the Estonian government and ESA. In connection with the project, UT will soon sign contracts both with ESA and Surrey Satellite Technology.
According to Mart Noorma, Associate Professor in optical metrology at the UT Space and Military Technology work group, the opportunity to build contacts with top specialists in many European countries is what makes participating in this project extremely valuable to the students involved.
The first Estonian student-built satellite, Estcube, is scheduled to reach space in 2012, and will test solar sail technology invented by Finnish scientists.