Mapping solutions from space
Can Edinburgh become the space data capital of Europe? A University space data and satellites programme is yielding some exciting projects, including a student-led venture to launch a nanosatellite into space. We talked to project-founder Ani Vasudevan about his plans to use space technology to advance understanding of global challenges.
Sometimes, to solve a problem, it helps to view it from a completely different perspective. So, imagine if you could slow down the global spread of Covid-19 by tracking its spread across the world from space or use satellite information to help famers predict the health or yield of their crops.
Space exploration and technology will play an ever-increasing role in our lives, and it is estimated that the global space market will be worth £400bn by 2030. Edinburgh, a space university, has an opportunity to contribute significantly to this field, with ambitions to establish Edinburgh as the Space Data Capital of Europe by 2030.
Hub for space
Edinburgh researchers are working across a wide range of space-related activities. Engineers are exploring the management of fire risk in space, chemists are developing clean-burn rocket fuels, astronomers are tracking the skies for space debris, and there are teams developing deep-space probe. At the University’s Bayes Centre, you’ll find a hub for space and satellite research activity, where scientists, students and business development executives are building partnerships and identifying opportunities for the application of their research, to achieve social and economic impact.
It’s an environment that matches the ambitions and ideas of fourth year Electrical & Mechanical Engineering student Ani Vasudevan. Ani is the founder and managing director of Asteria, a student-led project to launch a nanosatellite mission into space, which is hosted by the Bayes Centre.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, ten minutes’ drive away from the Apple headquarters, Ani couldn’t escape the influence of innovation and technology, and as a child his burgeoning interest in space was augmented by visits to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Institute in Washington DC. When he joined the University of Edinburgh as an undergraduate, he identified an opportunity to combine these two interests.
“I realised that there was no practical student space project at the University of Edinburgh. Most student space societies in the UK are involved in analysis of space or theoretical science. I saw a way to use my engineering skills and do something practical that could actually happen in space.
“That was the founding principle of Asteria: to bring real space engineering into the hands of students. We started out small - just three people - but through iterative development and expansion, we eventually grew to a team of around 30 people,” says Ani.
Asteria’s first project is a high-altitude balloon launch, working with Shetland Space Centre Ltd. The mission involves a custom-engineered payload containing a VR camera setup, muon particle detector, electronic sensors, and a GPS, deployed to 30km (100,000ft or 3x the height of a commercial aircraft) in the sky by a helium-filled high-altitude balloon. The project is a stepping stone towards launching a satellite into space by preparing the team with the valuable engineering skills and regulatory understanding. Asteria planned to launch the balloon in June but was forced to postpone to October due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the pandemic, Asteria has been progressing smoothly with their nanosatellite development.
These nanosatellites, known as CubeSats, are small enough to hold in the palm of the hand, but have huge potential for scientific and technological impact. First developed in 1999 by Stanford University, NASA has been using them ever since on new space missions and to test out technologies for larger missions. Cheaper to make than regular satellites, their compact form can allow for more focused scientific inquiries.
The Asteria team want to use their CubeSat for scientific missions designed to contribute relevant data and information to work that relates to Sustainable Development Goals.
“This is what makes Asteria unique from many other student societies out there, which often revolve around student competitions with limited public impact,” explains Ani. “When we began our mission development, it began on the premise that we wanted to deliver an environmentally related satellite mission. As Covid-19 unfolded, we realized the impact satellites can have in epidemiology and shifted gears accordingly. It’s difficult to find this kind of adaptability in student societies. We also understand the nuances of industry relations, regulations, and business development ideals, which are very important to establishing credibility and worthiness of operating a satellite.”
Potential to save lives
The team is pursuing a mission to help monitor and predict outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever. This ambitious but carefully studied mission is motivated by Covid-19 and has the potential to save lives – particularly in rural areas of the world which are most affected by such outbreaks. This satellite mission, named Oracle 1, has been designed by the students with support from Edinburgh academics, and if successful will provide valuable data to governments, research and data analysis teams, and Asteria themselves, who will analyze and make important conclusions on the possibility of disease outbreaks.
Ani believes that to develop this capability at Edinburgh will open the door to further research applications for students and academics. It’ll also inspire students to pursue careers relating to space and satellite technology – spurring companies and businesses.
He says: “Many universities around the world have their own dedicated satellite development facility. From a scientific standpoint, it’s very valuable, making space research – which can have overarching implications on life on earth -- more accessible to academics and students. From a learning standpoint, there’s no question; satellites teach students not only about engineering, but regulations, funding, legal standards, and much more.”
“I'd like to see Asteria provide students and academics increased access to space, and to grow to the point of having a dedicated facility and system at the University where academics and students can propose missions and put hardware into space. This would be invaluable for knowledge’s sake as well as building the backbone of a developed space economy in Edinburgh,”
Ani also hopes the work of Asteria can inspire others to play a part in helping Edinburgh’s burgeoning space technology community grow and develop at both the University and within the city.
He says: “I hope that Asteria’s achievements plant seeds and inspire other students to contribute to space, whether it be satellite companies, rocket companies, or who knows?”