Lessons learned from a university’s first CubeSat


Binar-1 was one of three CubeSats deployed from the International Space Station last October. (Image credit: JAXA)

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Last month marked a milestone for the Binar Space Program in Western Australia as its first satellite, Binar-1, lived up to its name.

Binar is the word for “ball of fire” in the Noongar language spoken by the Aboriginal people of Perth. Binar-1 became a true “binar” when it reentered Earth’s atmosphere in early October. Although the chance of seeing it over Australia was slim, with the right amount of luck it would have appeared as a shooting star in the night sky.

From the beginning of the mission, the team struggled to understand what was achievable with the time and money available.

Binar-1 was built by a team of graduate students and engineers at Curtin University’s Space Science and Technology Center. Its mission: a technology demonstration to test whether the innovative design – all systems are integrated at its core on a single circuit board – would survive in space.

Although parts of the mission were not a complete success due to some last minute design changes, this goal was still achieved.

A tiny cube of heaven

Binar-1 is a 1U sized cubesat, meaning it’s only 10 centimeters in diameter, roughly the size of a lunch box. Don’t let its size fool you: the satellite was packed with microelectronics to optimize its volume for countless future science and education missions.

It was delivered to the International Space Station on August 29, 2021 aboard a SpaceX resupply mission and deployed from the station’s Kibo module.

As a “technology demonstrator”, the spacecraft flew for the first time with its essential systems. The lessons from its fiery end will prepare the Binar Space Program for the next step: Binar-2, -3 and -4.

Five key takeaways from Binar-1

Lock high-level mission objectives at the beginning

From the beginning of the mission, the team struggled to understand what was achievable with the time and money available. This cost us valuable time, as each time we defined a new goal, new designs were necessary. Once we realized that a technology demonstration was our true goal, we were able to achieve exactly what we were trying to deliver.

Be prepared for delays

Having a plan for delays allows us to be more flexible when it comes to tight launch deadlines. At Binar-1, we assumed our testing schedule would stick to schedule, but that was never likely.

For our next launch, we’ve prioritized the tests we know are essential and which tests we can skip so we can make better decisions when it comes time to meet our deadlines.

Test while you fly

One of the challenges we faced was testing our designs in a way that replicated the behavior of the satellite in space. It might seem like an obvious lesson, but using the antennas to test your satellite systems instead of the handy USB connector you designed them with makes a world of difference.

Prepare for operation throughout the design process

You can’t learn that lesson without actually flying the satellite, but we certainly weren’t as prepared as we could have been for operations.

The number of tweaks to the ground station and command and control processes while our satellite was already in flight made it clear that incorporating the operational plan early will prepare you for mission success.

Remove as many assumptions as possible

Our current spacecraft burn up before they reach the ground, but we hope to eventually return one of our satellites to Earth in one piece.

A few too many assumptions were made during the design, which certainly affected the assembly and testing of Binar-1. For example, we assumed that the radio module we tested on the ground would work the same as the one we sent into space — but that wasn’t the case, leading to some frantic last-minute changes that eventually resulted in us not getting the images or data we were hoping for from orbit.

For our future missions, all assumptions need to be reviewed by the whole team to minimize the impact they can have on a mission when assumptions are inaccurate.

The mission continues

The Binar Space Program and Space Science and Technology Center are now preparing for their first true science mission. Aboard our three CubeSats, there will be a radiation material test conducted in partnership with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), a software experiment that will allow the spacecraft to make decisions on its own, and a few others made by students at the university were developed.

But the final scientific bit of the mission won’t come until it too meets its fiery ending: it’s our very own attempt at catching a shooting star, a tracking system to pinpoint when each of the next starships will become a binary .

Our current spacecraft burn up before they reach the ground, but we hope to eventually return one of our satellites to Earth in one piece, and this tracking system is just one of many small steps towards that tremendous goal. If you want to get involved and catch those fireballs with your own eyes in the future, you can read more on the Binar Space Program website.

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