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Inspired detective work finds Australian satellite in space

22 June 2017
Radio signal confirms INSPIRE-2 is alive in space

Around-the-clock detective work, expanding the search to an increasingly international group of volunteers and decoding at our ground station has confirmed Australia's successful return to the space race.

INSPIRE-2 headed for outer space

Our cubesat last seen launching from the International Space Station on 26 May 2017.

INSPIRE-2 photographed at the University of Sydney before it was packed up and sent overseas for the launch.

INSPIRE-2 at the University of Sydney before it was packed up and sent overseas for the launch.

Just over two weeks since the INSPIRE-2  satellite was launched into space from the International Space Station, a radio signal has finally been detected – marking Australia’s first successful foray into space in 15 years.

The small spacecraft, known as a CubeSat, was first detected about 12.30am on 12 June. Listen to the report on ABC radio's PM program.

Project leader, University of Sydney Professor of Space Physics Iver Cairns said detective work to locate and communicate with the pioneering spacecraft was a result of around-the-clock collaborative work with project partners the University of New South Wales and Australian National University and an increasingly international group of radio enthusiasts.

“INSPIRE-2 is alive in space and in good health! Dr Joon Wayn Cheong and our UNSW team members think the initial lack of contact may have been caused by a low battery after the launch sending the computer into a shutdown-reboot loop,” Professor Cairns said.

“New commands sent into space seem to have solved the problem and our team decoded the Morse code from the spacecraft telling us the signal was indeed from AU03 – INSPIRE-2!”

UNSW Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research Professor Andrew Dempster said two weeks of sleepless nights, detailed analysis, and strong international engagement had finally paid off.

"This success was down to the excellence of the engineers involved in contacting the satellite, and the wonderful interactions with the international radio community who offered their assistance," Professor Dempster said.

ANU Head of Space Plasma, Power and Propulsion Laboratory, Professor Christine Charles, said detection of INSPIRE-2 was relayed by ‘radio hams’ and confirmed at the cubesat groundstation at ANU by Mr Dimitrios Tsifakis.

“It is wonderful to see such a display of interdisciplinary national and international collaboration,” Professor Charles said.

The cubesat is part of the international constellation project QB50, which celebrated its lift-off from Cape Canaveral, Florida in April 2017 and its deployment into space in late May 2017.

The news comes a week after the Australian Research Council awarded $4.6 million for a Training Centre for Cubesats, UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] and Their Applications, to a consortium led by the University of Sydney and Professor Cairns that includes the University of New South Wales, nine domestic companies and government entities, and two US universities.

How the cubesat was detected:

  • INSPIRE-2 team members from the University of New South Wales – especially Joon Wayn Cheong, Ben Southwell, Elias Aboutanios and Will Andrew – worked to understand the satellite’s silence and developed commands to fix this.
  • Together with radio amateurs across the world, the Australian National University’s Mr Dimitrios Tsifakis and the University of Sydney’s Tony Monger, they listened and transmitted commands to the CubeSat at all hours of the day and night for many days.
  • Finally, on Sunday radio amateurs from the Netherlands, Spain, the USA, and Australia detected INSPIRE-2, followed by our team’s Dimitrios Tsifakis. We needed all these parts to succeed.
  • ANU team-member Mr Dimitrios Tsifakis said: “The beacon signal contained the satellite name and parameters such as the battery voltage, charging current, and temperature. The initial contact involved reception of the beacon signal and was a very simple message exchange, consisting of a confirmation that the satellite can receive signals from and send them to our ground station.”
  • Dr Joon Wayn Cheong and Mr Dimitrios Tsifakis coordinated radio amateurs around the world, especially the 25m satellite dish in Netherland to help us uplink the reconfiguration commands required to revive the satellite.
  • The uplink of the commands, given the spacecraft’s likely stowed antennas, required special high power transmission equipment owned by radio amateurs: Mr Jan van Muijlwijk who commanded the 25m dish in the Netherlands and Mr Phil Moat who operated a high power antenna array from Toowomba, Qld.
  • Initial beacon signals were received in Australia (including Mr Robert Quick and Mr Phil Moat), the Netherlands (Mr Jan van Muijlwijk), Spain (Mr Daniel Estevez), and the USA (Mr Scott Chapman).
  • Mr Dimitrios Tsifakis was the first team member to receive the beacon, using the ANU groundstation.
  • Dr Barnaby Osborne, formerly at UNSW but now at our affiliated groundstation at the International Space University, France, was the first to detect and fully decode the beacon telemetry.
  • The team’s UNSW and ANU groundstations attempted to continuously monitor INSPIRE-2’s signal every pass and transmit signals to it. Since deployment the best passes have been primarily between 11 pm and 6 am. 

Vivienne Reiner

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