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WUSAT-3 CubeSat Project

Earth photographed from the WUSAT-1 satellite. Render of WUSAT-3 satellite design.

Background image: photo of Earth taken from the WUSAT-1 CubeSat launched April 2013 via a high-altitude helium balloon. Inset image: graphical render of the WUSAT-3 CubeSat.

WUSAT is the University of Warwick Satellite Engineering Project. Every year, a group of fourth-year MEng students from the School of Engineering work together on the next stage of WUSAT.

The current satellite project, WUSAT-3, is a three-unit CubeSat. It will be launched on a supply rocket to the International Space Station (ISS). Once it's successfully on the ISS, it will then separate from the ISS and be put into a low Earth orbit as a standalone satellite approximately 400km above the planet.

WUSAT-3's mission is to demonstrate wildlife tracking capability to support biologists and conservationists. As a proof of concept, it will detect signals from smart tags placed at several universities around the globe. The tag technology is similar to miniature devices used to monitor wildlife.

The satellite's payload is a deployable antenna and camera, with payload software to calculate a tag signal's position. Roke Manor Research, an industry partner, proposed the payload concept and they support the student team with the direction-finding technology.

A control system prevents the satellite from tumbling and holds it in position so that the antenna and camera point towards Earth.

The antenna detects signals from the tags on Earth and triggers the camera to take a photo. Software positions the signal's location in the photo, then post-processing aligns the image to map coordinates. The resultant data could enable researchers to monitor animals' migration patterns.

Icarus and sustainable development

Warwick's student project complements the Icarus initiative, a collaboration of animal scientists, and the German, European and Russian space agencies, led by the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. The initiative is establishing the infrastructure to observe wildlife from space, collect data and share it with researchers via the free Movebank database.

Tagging and tracking wildlife is a vital mechanism in efforts to preserve biodiversity. Potential projects include:

  • understanding marine life
  • identifying animal migration patterns
  • analysing environmental effects on animals' behaviour
  • discovering animals' effect on ecosystems
  • assisting the prevention of illegal poaching

Tracking wildlife supports two of the United Nations' sustainable development goals adopted by all United Nations member states in 2015: life below water and life on land.

Current terrestrial systems involve sensing tag signals remotely, or physically recovering tags in person, via handheld antennas and global positioning systems (GPS), which is labour-intensive. Argos is an existing space-based system established in 1978 by the French Space Agency (CNES), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Icarus and WUSAT-3 systems could extend the range of species capable of being monitored.

WUSAT-3's mission can potentially provide an important proof of concept for the tag tracking technology necessary in a modern, space-based system.

Icarus initiative: wildlife observation from space

Student achievements

WUSAT-3 is a significant step up from WUSAT-1 and WUSAT-2 in terms of the project's size and complexity. It may be a year or two before the launch of WUSAT-3, which depends on the European Space Agency (ESA) timeline and their review process.

There are positive signs though that the ESA is keen on the WUSAT-3 mission because WUSAT team members are being selected for ESA training programmes.

Mechanical Engineering students Ellen Daly and Hamish Fothergill have been selected to attend ESA's concurrent engineering course at the European Space Security and Education Centre in Belgium. Concurrent engineering is a method for designing products for the space sector where engineers design all subsystems at the same time. It's challenging and different from traditional design approaches. Five WUSAT students have been chosen in recent months for this prestigious programme. It's a remarkable achievement considering that the ESA selects only 30 students from the whole of Europe.

Diella Agyeman, who is studying Electronic Engineering, has taken a spacecraft communications course at the ESA Academy’s Training and Learning Facility in Belgium. Diella currently works on WUSAT-3's communications systems – a crucial area for space missions.

Ellen Daly
Ellen Daly

Hamish Fothergill
Hamish Fothergill

Diella Agyeman
Diella Agyeman

Industry partners

Sponsors of the WUSAT-3 student project are Roke Manor Research, Biotrack, Blue Space Systems, RS Components, XCAM, Eurocircuits, Harwin, Airbus, AGI, and Marks & Clerk.

XCAM make specialist imaging equipment that goes into space – for example, equipment that detects fine particles in the payload space on launch. They were involved with a space mission and needed to do more of the engineering development work in preparation for a launch, such as thermal modelling. XCAM asked WUSAT if an engineering student could help them.

Michael Kaniou, who completed his third year of a Mechanical Engineering degree in 2018, worked at XCAM in Northampton for six weeks as part of the Warwick Summer Internships programme. XCAM were delighted with Michael's contribution and kept in touch. Michael, now in his final year, joined the WUSAT programme and XCAM came on board as an industry partner. They have since donated £30,000 worth of camera equipment used in a CubeSat to the student project. As the cameras have been flight-tested rigourously, which is enormous and expensive, they are already cleared for space flight.

The WUSAT programme gives students valuable experience of liaising with engineering companies and working in a multidisciplinary project team.

The experience and skills are necessary to successfully pass a rigorous ESA review of WUSAT-3's payload before it is approved for launch. ESA engineers subject the students' work to the same review and testing as designs submitted by any engineering company. The students need to be personable, work well with others and produce quality documentation.

Roke, part of the Chemring Group
Biotrack
Blue-Space Systems

2018-2019 WUSAT team

Here is the 2018-19 student team with the Co-Directors of the WUSAT Programme, Dr Bill Crofts and Professor Julia Hunter-Anderson:

WUSAT-3 team members

Back row (left to right): Professor Julia Hunter-Anderson (Co-Director); Ken Diep (electrical power supply); Michael Kaniou (mechanical space mechanisms); Ellen Daly (mechanical structures); Dr Bill Crofts (Co-Director).

Front row (left to right): Diella Agyeman (space communications); Anjali Yadav (manufacturing quality and product assurance); Hamish Fothergill (satellite orientation control mechanisms); Kulan Gunawardena (electronics systems engineering).