A small slice of Switzerland in space


This picture shows a student built satellite © Alain Herzog/EPFL

The first 100% Swiss Made satellite has been in orbit for four years now. At the end of its mission in 2018, instead of becoming another item of space debris, it may help demonstrate a workable solution to this issue. By Philippe Morel

SwissCube orbits the Earth at an altitude of around 700km yet measures just 10cm cubed. Nor is everything given away by the title ‘the first entirely Swiss-built satellite’, as it was actually developed, designed and produced chiefly by students at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland (HES). "Giving students hands-on experience like this is a real booster to their education", says the project leader, Muriel Richard.

Student success

In total around 200 students participated in the processes of establishing protocols, conducting tests and selecting appropriate technology, then assembling the components, building prototypes and, eventually, constructing the satellite itself. And by all accounts they were successful. SwissCube not only resisted the intense vibrations of the launch, but has since orbited the planet more than 22,000 times, remaining fully operational despite exposure to solar radiation and drastic changes in temperature. Besides its educational aims, the project has also fostered a full-fledged scientific mission. To design this, they enlisted the help of the World Radiation Centre (WRC) in Davos, specialists in solar radiation. The mission aims to investigate ‘air glow’, a photochemical phenomenon occurring at night at an altitude of 100km, where oxygen atoms recombine and emit a low intensity light or ‘glow’. Since its launch, SwissCube has photographed air glow on over 250 occasions. Unfortunately, the data collected is of limited scientific value, as a compromise had to be struck on the choice of detector. The initial choice proved to be overly susceptible to radiation, leaving mission planners to opt for a more robust, but much less sensitive model.

More space waste?

During the planning phase of the mission, there was little concern regarding the fate of the satellite. In 2009, however, this attitude had to be dropped when two satellites collided in space and another was destroyed by a Chinese missile. These events littered the path of SwissCube’s planned orbit with debris. Fortunately the satellite has yet to suffer any damage, but Richard is adamant in saying, "today, any new satellites will be fitted with propulsion systems allowing changes in orbit and controlled destruction". SwissCube may still dodge its fate of becoming yet more space waste, as researchers at the Swiss Space Centre have drummed up the Clean Space One project. This project aims to launch a satellite capable of collecting debris and bringing it safely back to Earth. If all goes to plan, the Clean Space One team will honour SwissCube by making it the target of their first mission, planned for 2018. "Switzerland is a relatively small space-faring nation", says Richard. "If we can demonstrate that it is possible to deal with debris, it would force larger nations to take the problem seriously".

(From "Horizons" No. 100, March 2014)


Communication division
E-mail com@snf.ch