Undergraduates build power system for moon orbiter

Final-year engineering undergraduates from Warwick University are building the power system for a micro-satellite that will orbit the moon in 2014.

The European Student Moon Orbiter (ESMO) is an education outreach project by the European Space Agency (ESA) that gathers 23 teams across the continent — all working on different systems such as the chemical propulsion and power electronics.

The ESMO payload includes a camera that will hopefully facilitate operation by school children, as well as experiments including a Cubesat that will launch from ESMO and go into lower orbit to study the moon’s local gravity.

It will be the job of students at Warwick to deliver a constant source of power to these payloads throughout the journey and ensure they are integrated effectively.

While the design is constantly evolving due to the changing nature of the project, the power system will consist of two solar panels, a battery and a central power-conditioning and distribution unit.

Because of the demanding conditions, such as the changing angle of the sun, power distribution has been a primary concern and the students are working on a bespoke maximum power point tracking system (MPTSP).

A key part of Warwick’s contribution to ESMO will be industrial collaboration with prime contractor Surrey Satellite Technology, as well as 17 other companies.

‘Each stage is reviewed by ESA and we have engineers at SST who act as our mentors. The students research the different requirements and we have regular meetings to refine what they are doing then the technology we actually use comes out of that process,’ said Dr Bill Crofts of Warwick who oversees the students.

The team is testing its design using software for thermal and vibration modelling and hopes to take prototypes to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories (RAL) in Oxford.

‘Often with space technology you assume that you’re dealing with very high-cost technology, but sometimes you have to choose what is more robust and what is going to be more reliable, especially with students working on it.’

But Crofts said that, rather than being simply a one-off novelty, projects such as ESMO could provide a model for the UK space industry, with benefits to companies being two-fold.

‘They’re prepared to trial developments that they’re working on in a low-cost mission, whereas they wouldn’t do it in a £100m communications satellite, for example, where they daren’t risk it. And it’s a great source of good graduates for the companies; they’re keen to see people working in this environment as they might want to take them on,’ Crofts said.