SpIRIT of science: University of Melbourne-led satellite mission launch countdown begins

The SpIRIT nanosatellite will be blasted into orbit on a Space X Falcon-9 rocket later this year: illustrative render.

A satellite mission led by the University of Melbourne and supported by the Australian Space Agency is beginning its journey to orbit after it passed tests to verify its performance and ensure it can stand the harsh environment of space.

The SpIRIT nanosatellite has left Australia for the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California to be blasted into orbit 550km above the Earth on a Space X Falcon-9 rocket later this year.

The Australian-made Space Industry Responsive Intelligent Thermal (SpIRIT in short) will be 30cm long during launch but in orbit will deploy solar panels and thermal radiators nearly a metre long.

SpIRIT, which is packed with miniaturised components, was developed by a co-funded consortium led by the Melbourne Space Laboratory at the University of Melbourne with the co-operation of the Italian Space Agency and the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics.

The Australian partners are Inovor Technologies, Neumann Space, Sitael Australia, and Nova Systems, while the Australian Space Agency supported the project with almost $7 million in grants.

SpIRIT is the first Australian satellite to carry a foreign space agency’s scientific instrument as its main payload – the Italian Space Agency’s HERMES X-ray detector to search for gamma rays, which are created when stars die or collide and for a moment emit more energy than an entire galaxy. SpIRIT will be part of a network of six satellites looking for the elusive rays as part of the HERMES Scientific Pathfinder Constellation mission.

The mission will also test a University of Melbourne thermal control system that lets nanosatellites host sensitive instruments requiring precise temperature control that otherwise could only fly on satellites ten times heavier.

The 11.5kg nanosatellite uses the popular CubeSat design as its framework and will carry cameras (including a selfie stick), guidance systems, an electric propulsion thruster and computers.

After its California launch, the team will then spend about four months testing and commissioning the satellite in the extreme conditions before full operations begin. SpIRIT is designed to work for about two years before returning to Earth to burn up on re-entry. Once in orbit, SpIRIT will commence its mission to demonstrate made-in-Australia technological innovations, and to investigate the mysteries of the cosmos through international scientific cooperation.

University of Melbourne Professor Michele Trenti, SpIRIT Mission Principal Investigator, said: “There is a growing role for big science in smaller craft, and in understanding the universe or relaying information around the world several small satellites can be more competitive than one big one. It will take time, but I’m looking forward to receiving images and scientific data back from SpIRIT. However, it is already an incredible achievement just to go through the full satellite development cycle.”

Italian Space Agency President Dr Teodoro Valente, said: “We are excited to combine the data expected from HERMES on SpIRIT with those from twin instruments on the ASI HERMES CubeSat constellation, to be launched in the near future. This cooperation with the University of Melbourne will enhance the global scientific return for the Italian community in investigating the highest energy phenomena of the universe.”

Australian Space Agency Head Enrico Palermo, said: “SpIRIT exemplifies the Australian space sector’s growing capability and readiness to collaborate with international partners. The Australian Space Agency is proud to back SpIRIT, and with new Australian technologies on board, this is an important demonstration of how we can contribute to international space programs.”

Dr Fabrizio Fiore, Scientific Co-ordinator of the HERMES Scientific Pathfinder Constellation, Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), said: “The X-ray and gamma ray spectrometer developed by INAF and its collaborators is a miniaturised by highly innovative payload, which will open the way to the realization of a sensitive and affordable all-sky monitor for high-energy transients such as gamma ray bursts and the electromagnetic counterparts of gravitational wave events. SpIRIT will thus be a crucial step in the path to bring multi-messenger astrophysics to maturity.”

Matthew Tetlow, CEO Inovor Technologies, which contributed its Apogee modular platform, said: “Inovor’s cutting-edge technology and rigorous testing campaigns are designed to build reliable satellites. SpIRIT is a testament to Australia’s ability to wholly design, build and test satellites. As the Australian space industry continues to ascend, we are not just witnessing history we are actively shaping it.”

Herve Astier, CEO Neumann Space, which contributed the electric propulsion system, said:
“We’re delighted to be part of this mission, showcasing our propulsion system integrated into the Inovor platform. Pioneering metal-based propulsion technology, the Neumann Drive contributes to in-orbit sustainability and paves the way for a future where our propulsion system can be refuelled in situ from space debris.”

Andrew Mannix, Nova Systems Executive General Manager Mission Solutions, said: “It’s great to be part of a dynamic team showcasing Australian capability and the ability of the team to work collaboratively on a national and international basis. We look forward to seeing the Nova Autonomous Intelligent Ground Station system at our Nova Space Precinct supporting this innovative Australian project.”