Down-to-Earth way to test satellite systems

A pioneering facility for testing satellite control systems is to be built in the UK at Southampton University.

A pioneering facility for testing satellite control systems is to be built in the UK. 

Researchers at Southampton University are to develop Europe’s first centre capable of accurately modelling the dynamics of two satellites in space and their communication with each other.

Project leader Prof Sandol Veres said the centre will help observe the behaviour of satellites in orbit. ‘This facility is really going to be quite pioneering as there are currently no real means for satellite systems to be tested on the ground,’ he said. ‘We will be able to replace calculations with something more tangible and monitor the performance of the control systems as they actually are.’

As well as control, the facility is designed to test a satellite’s communications and on-board sensors.

‘The main problem with accurately manoeuvring satellites is that in orbit they are so far from any other reference point. They can only fix their position with reference to each other. Being able to accurately monitor the effectiveness of any control systems will be of enormous use in this,’ said Veres. 

The system will be designed to model the dynamics of nanosatellites, which weigh no more than 10kg and are designed to fly in formation. The facility itself will be between 50 and 100sq m in area.

As gravity will play a role, which it would not in space, researchers anticipate a slight discrepancy in the results, but they do not expect this to make any serious difference to the planned experiments.

The team has already built three prototype satellites for use in the testing facility. They are supported by air-bearing pads over a glass table, and each satellite is fully-equipped with a digital computer, wireless communications and fan-jet thrusters. 

EADS Astrium is interested in using the facility to test its satellite systems, and the developers hope that it will eventually be used by companies throughout Europe.