WUSAT clan takes Warwick into orbit

Andrea Cullis, media relations manager at Warwick University, tells The Student Engineer about the satellite project giving students a real taste for space. 

NanoRacks CubeSats being launched from the ISS (Credit: NASA)

Space – it’s the final frontier and all that, and since 2006 students at Warwick University have been making steady steps to get there through the Warwick University Satellite Project (WUSAT).

Every year, a small group of final year engineering undergraduates are assembled to progress and produce the next incarnation of WUSAT. What began as the electrical power sub-system team for a European Space Agency moon-orbiting satellite eventually evolved into designing, engineering and launching Warwick’s own CubeSats – miniaturised satellites for space research, made up of multiple cubic units of set proportions.

WUSAT-1 went up on a high-altitude weather balloon in 2013. WUSAT-2 was launched via a Rexus rocket from the Swedish Space Centre in 2015. Now, this year’s team has begun work on WUSAT-3, with the aim of launching it to the International Space Station (ISS) where it will be deployed into Low-Earth Orbit (approximately 400km) via the NanoRacks CubeSat deployment system onboard the ISS. In other words – proper space!

Team members Nikita Bascombe and Rhys Woodgate

Space race

This year’s WUSAT project line-up is made up of seven undergraduate engineering students, with three PhD students – all former WUSAT team members – lending a hand.

“The WUSAT project has really developed over the years,” said Dr Bill Crofts, the academic leading Warwick’s space race. “From our initial dabble in the area in 2006, it has grown into a standalone student-led satellite engineering programme. I think we’re pretty unique in the fact that this is undergraduate-led and that the work counts, as a final year project, toward the students’ MEng degree programme.”

“And it is demanding and high-level stuff. We have industry sponsors who give support, commitment and advice by the bucket load. And of course the projects lead up to those very exciting launch moments.”

Also leading the team is Prof Julia Hunter-Anderson, an experienced space systems engineer who is helping with the systems engineering aspects of the project as well as pursuing other leads that will support the development of the mission and its place on the European Space Agency programme to launch via the International Space Station.

High life and wildlife

The current WUSAT design is the most ambitious to date. WUSAT-3 will be a three-unit CubeSat satellite carrying a high-resolution direction finder payload. The direction finder will be designed to locate and monitor the status of bird and animal migration smart tags working in support of the ICARUS system that is also installed on the ISS.

Jenny Barker, Jake Swain and Lee Woodend

Team member Jenny Barker, 21, who is specialising in electronic engineering, explained: “The satellite will pick up signals from animal tags and position them against a photograph taken of the earth. This will give scientists the ability to map animal migration patterns.”

Mechanical engineering student, Jonathan Cooper, 23, added: “Our CubeSat is a low cost option for data tracking, providing valuable data to wildlife scientists and conservationists. The deployable antenna design we’re working on will be a key feature of this mission and successful deployment would be a unique achievement for CubeSat technology.”

Taking on a project like this means the students have had to pick up new skills ‘on the job’.

“The project itself has a huge amount of technical content,” said Jonathan (pictured). “I have designed the Attitude Determination and Control System that stabilises the satellite and keeps it in the correct orientation.”

Sponsored Satellite

The challenge isn’t just about building parts that work. The mission is also about building the team. WUSAT’s key partner is Roke Manor Research, which proposed the payload concept and made the brilliant link to the ICARUS wildlife monitoring system operated by the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. Industry support has also come from Harwin Interconnects, Thales Alenia Space, Surrey Satellite Technology, RS Components, and SolidWorks, as well as specialist businesses like EuroCircuits and Proctor Group. Working on a prestigious project like WUSAT gives the students the chance to liaise with industry and operate in a project team.

“We work concurrently on many different types of systems and this is giving us experience of how projects work in the real world,” said 23-year-old Sumira Awan, who is specialising in systems engineering. “Working with sponsors also means we have to communicate with external people who can influence the project.”

Sumira Awan

Passing the baton

For all their hard work though, the 2017 team members won’t be at the helm for the big launch. This particular set of students have the difficult but noble job of passing the baton to the next team, with the hope that their hard work will end up contributing to the launch of the satellite to the ISS in 2018.

“These are rolling projects, so it does mean that there won’t be a launch every year,” explained Dr Crofts. “But the experience the students get from working on something as technically and personally challenging as a satellite project pays off for every single participant – whether they get the ‘glamourous’ launch or not!”

Jenny Barker, who has secured a graduate position with Leonardo’s Airborne and Space Systems Division when she graduates, sums it up. “I have learnt so much from working on WUSAT,” she said. “From general engineering project management and systems design to detailed space engineering of a satellite. This project has been an invaluable part of my degree where I’ve learnt leadership, teamwork, communication and organisational skills.”