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The tiny Swiss satellite, launched in September 2009, is still working. The fact that it has lasted so long is a testament to the skills of the students who built it.
23 SEPTEMBER 2009
SwissCube, a Cubesat-type satellite measuring 10 cm by 10 cm, was launched on 23 September 2009. The mission was supposed to last four months. But a decade on, the satellite is still orbiting the Earth. And its systems remain fully operational. On Monday evening, space industry experts and members of the original design team attended a special event at the EPFL Space Center (eSpace) to mark this incredible milestone.
SwissCube orbits 720 km above the earth’s surface. Traveling at a speed of 7,500 meters per second, or 28,000 km per hour, it completes 15 or so round-trips each day – adding up to a staggering 55,000 since its launch. The satellite has malfunctioned on more than one occasion, requiring a complete reboot. But it has sprung back to life every time, without fail, and is still emitting position, temperature and rotation speed signals today. Even the onboard camera works when activated.
The little satellite’s early days were anything but a smooth ride. In the hours after its launch, it was spinning so fast that it was unusable. It took almost a year before the rotation had slowed to the point where the team could control and use its systems. And it hasn’t fully completed its scientific mission: photographing and documenting polar airglow from the upper atmosphere.
But the real success story lies in the fact that SwissCube is still going strong. The design team made some bold choices, opting for untested low-cost materials and methods such as a standard cellphone battery that is only designed to withstand 500 charges. SwissCube’s battery has completed 55,000 charging cycles – and it’s still working. Those bold decisions paid off.
The SwissCube story began in 2006 when researchers at EPFL set themselves the challenge of building the first all-Swiss satellite. The project lasted three years and involved around 200 students from several Swiss specialized universities. In addition to getting to grips with space technology, the students learned about the design process and gained important skills such as assuming individual responsibility, keeping track of minute details and working both within a team and with other universities. The satellite’s longevity is a testament to the skills of the young students who built it. Some members of the original team have gone on to forge careers in the space industry, including a group of students who founded Astrocast, an EPFL spin-off.
SwissCube’s impact has been felt far beyond the mission itself. Shortly after launch, the team realized that space debris in the satellite’s path posed a real threat. Over 100 potential collisions have been reported to date. Some team members, including project manager Muriel Richard, decided to make the issue a focus of their research and have established a reputation as world-leading experts in the field.