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Artist's impression of AU03 INSPIRE-2 deployed in orbit with INSPIRE-2 logo.

The ‘INSPIRE-2’ satellite is a product of a research and capability-building partnership between three Australian universities (University of Sydney, UNSW, ANU), and is a participant in a global small satellite research program (‘QB50’) managed by the Von Karman Institute in Belgium.

The QB50 Mission involves a constellation of 28 CubeSats (including INSPIRE-2) at an altitude of 415 km as well as 8 CubeSats at an altitude of 500 km in sun synchronous orbit.

The CubeSats are now conducting multi-point, in-situ, long duration measurements of different gaseous molecules and electrical properties of the poorly studied and previously inaccessible thermosphere. Over a period of 1 to 2 years, the project will monitor the thermosphere to better understand space weather and its long-term trends. The QB50 CubeSats carry either a multi-Needle Langmuir Probe (m-NLP), Ion-Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) or Flux-Φ-Probe Experiment (FIPEX), as well as their own additional payloads.

INSPIRE-2 was launched into Space as part of a NASA-contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on an Atlas V Rocket from the commercial space services provider OrbitalATK, under contract with the NanoRacks LLC service provider. Nanoracks released INSPIRE-2 into orbit on 26th May 2017 (video).

The QB50 launch was the first launch of Australian built and operated CubeSat spacecraft. Given international recognition that this form of spacecraft will increasingly be used for future Earth observation, navigation and communication roles, this activity offers a significant national capability-building benefit in the sector, as well as the opportunity to demonstrate utility and space qualification of proprietary instrumentation for several research applications. It is also closely aligned with a University of Sydney-led multi-party bid to establish an ARC Industrial Transformation Research Program Training Centre, which was succesfully funded in June 2017.

Spacecraft and Mission – Summary

Mission attribute Details
Reference number AU03 ‘INSPIRE-2’
Size 20cm x 10cm x 10cm; 2 Unit CubeSat format
Mass 2000 gm (2 kg)
Equipment Commercial ‘off-the-shelf’ control and operating systems; 5 research instruments
Mission purpose Scientific research and national capacity building
Altitude at launch 415km
Mission duration 1-2 years
Mission conclusion Complete burn-up in upper atmosphere at >80km altitude

Construction, upload and launch into orbit

The INSPIRE-2 craft is a two-unit (2U) cubesat. The craft uses commercial ‘off-the-shelf’ componentry for basic structural purposes and control functions, and carries a payload of five research instruments. One of the instruments (the Langmuir Probe) is supplied by the VKI for integrated program research purposes; the other four instruments are proprietary devices developed by the University of Sydney (USyd) and UNSW. The craft does not carry any substances/ materials of a flammable, corrosive or otherwise hazardous nature.

The craft was assembled in the Faculty of Science (USyd) and Faculty of Electrical Engineering (UNSW), and validated for space capability at the Mount Stromlo facilities of the Australian National University (ANU). INSPIRE-2 was then consigned to the VKI, from where it was packed by NanoRacks into the CubeSat Deployer apparatus, NanoRacks’ proprietary system “that mechanically and electrically isolates cubesats from the ISS, cargo resupply vehicles, and ISS crew” (NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD) Interface Control Document. NanoRacks LLC).

Mission activities

After launch into circular low Earth orbit the payload instruments commence operation and data capture and storage, with data downloads being made to groundstations in Sydney, ANU ('Blue Wren' Groudstation) and Strasbourg, France. Communication access through these locations will occur an estimated 4 and 6 times per day, respectively, with total daily access durations of 21.6 and 28.6 minutes.

Mission conclusion and craft demise

At an estimated 1 - 2 years post-launch, orbital decay due to friction with air molecules will pull INPSIRE-2 into the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere. This friction will slow, melt, fragment and degrade the craft to a non-operational state. Detailed modelling (Fritsche, B. 2015. Uncertainty quantification for re-rentry survivability prediction. From ‘Space Safety is No Accident’. Sgobba, T & Rongier, I., Eds. Springer, 640pp.) shows that the craft will completely burn up in the atmosphere at an altitude above 80km, and that no debris will reach the surface of the Earth. This assessment is consistent with empirical observations of the outcomes of international CubeSat missions to date.

'Blue Wren' ground station at ANU

The 'Blue Wren' ground station at the Australian National University (see pictures below) has been set up for INSPIRE-2. There are also ground stations at The University of New South Wales and in Strasbourg, France which will communicate with the satellite in orbit.

groundstation antenna
external view of groundstation