Israeli high-school kids build life-saving satellite

A group of 40 Herzliya students are developing a nano-sized satellite to help locate lost travelers

Students work on the Duchifat cubesat (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Students work on the Duchifat cubesat (Photo credit: Courtesy)

In a first for Israel, a one-of-a-kind a satellite is set to be launched in April that will provide a much-needed boost to an aging emergency alert system for hikers and travelers around the world who can’t use phone or wifi connections to send distress signals.

Even better – the nano-sized satellite measures just ten centimeters square; once in orbit, it should last for several years, providing services for users of Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) compatible devices who need help and are unable to connect with rescue services.

Best of all – the satellite is being built by a group of forty 16 and 17 year old students from Herzliya, who are participating in a unique project, in which dozens of diminutive satellites will be launched as part of an international effort to explore the lower thermosphere, which is largely unmonitored right now.

“We chose to design a satellite that responds to APRS signals in order to bolster a much-needed protocol that needs updating,” said Meir Ariel, who heads Herzliya Science Center High School program, where the tiny satellite, called Duchifat (Hoopoe) is being built. “Our group is very excited to be launching this satellite as part of the QB50 project, which will help travelers around the world.”

QB50 is the name of the EU project to launch 40 double-size cubesats that, once deployed, will measure various indicators in the lower thermosphere (90-320 km above the earth) that space agencies have “overlooked” because of the expense of putting up satellites in that band. A cubesat is a satellite no bigger than ten centimeters square weighing no more than one kilo that can communicate with the earth, doing one thing – and doing it well.

The Israeli satellite is being developed as part of a special QB50 project for students, who are building special-purpose cubesats for a variety of purposes. The Herzliya students decided, said Ariel, to build a satellite that responds to APRS signals, because the infrastructure for that very useful communications system has become a bit ragged around the edges. “We’re bolstering a system that has, and will continue, to save lives around the world,” said Ariel.

The Duchifat cubesat (Photo credit: Courtesy)
The Duchifat cubesat (Photo credit: Courtesy)

APRS is a protocol that lets users communicate directly with a satellite equipped to handle specific signals. It is used by thousands of people around the world to broadcast messages, send e-mail and SMS messages to a network, report weather, and more. APRS is especially useful in areas where there is no cellphone service; in order to communicate with an APRS satellite, a user presses a button on an APRS-capable device to send the signal skywards. The signal will eventually be picked up by an APRS satellite, which will download the signal to a control center, where the message will be read and acted upon.

The most important use of APRS is for sending distress signals; thus, a hiker who is lost in a mountainous area or a desert, or someone adrift at sea or even stuck on a desert island, is never really “alone” if they have an APRS-capable device; if they send out a signal, someone will pick it up, sooner or later. As long as there is open sky, said Ariel, APRS will work.

That, at least, is how it is supposed to function, but according to Ariel, the system could use a boost. “The satellites out there than handle APRS are old and the signals aren’t always checked on, and there are many areas of the world that are not covered,” he said. “The main satellite that handles APRS, PCSat, was launched over a decade ago by the U.S., and it’s showing its age.”

The Duchifat, said Ariel, will step in to bolster the life-saving network. “Signals that reach Duchifat will be downloaded to a server at the high school, which will be monitored by students,” he said. “When a distress signal comes in the students will inform the authorities in that region of the location of the person sending the signal, and hopefully they will respond and take care of the problem.”

According to Ariel, the Duchifat will circumnavigate the world every hour and a half or so at different trajectories. “It can pick up signals within a radius of 4,000 kilometers on earth from any point in the atmosphere, so at some point in a 24 hour period just about anybody anywhere would be within its range,” Ariel added.

Of course, once the satellite is built, it’s got to get up into space, and Ariel has a plan for that, too. “We plan to hitch a ride with a full-sized Russian satellite which is to be launched in April,” he said. “Because Duchifat is so small, it can be easily attached and set into orbit.” The cost for launching it will be 80,000 euros, most of which will be covered by the Israel Space Authority.

The project is a natural for the school, which is more than a high school, said Ariel. “We run educational projects in different schools in town and all around the country, including in places like Sderot and Ofakim.” The high school, along with several other science-oriented high schools and junior highs, are all on a single campus, with 1,200 kids studying in the institutions – 600 of them in space and aeronautic programs, Ariel said. “And the satellite itself will be used for educational purposes, as we will bring the control center to schools and organizations and show how the system works. We hope the excitement we feel about this will rub off on others and inspire them to think of careers in science and space-related industries,” he added.

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