'It'll burn up in the atmosphere and come back as stardust'

Israeli-made nanosatellite released into Earth orbit

Astronauts aboard International Space Station launch Tel Aviv University’s TAU-SAT1, which will measure cosmic radiation around Earth

TAU-SAT1, the nanosatellite developed by Tel Aviv University. (Tel Aviv University)
TAU-SAT1, the nanosatellite developed by Tel Aviv University. (Tel Aviv University)

A nanosatellite built by Tel Aviv University staff and students was released into Earth’s orbit on Saturday.

The satellite, named TAU-SAT1, is the first of its kind to be developed, assembled and tested independently by an Israeli university. It was carried into space on board a NASA resupply rocket to the International Space Station, and from there, ISS astronauts launched it onto its globe-circling track.

TAU-SAT1’s development was completed about four months ago, and it went through further testing by the Japanese space agency JAXA before being sent to the ISS. It will conduct several experiments while in orbit, including measurement of cosmic radiation around the Earth.

“This is a nanosatellite, or miniature satellite, of the CubeSat variety,” said Ofer Amrani, head of Tel Aviv University’s Miniature Satellite Lab. “The satellite’s dimensions are 10 by 10 by 30 centimeters (2.5 by 2.5 by 12 inches), and it weighs less than 2.5 kilograms (about five pounds)… In total, the satellite is expected to be active for several months. Because it has no engine, its trajectory will fade over time as a result of atmospheric drag – and eventually it will burn up in the atmosphere and come back to us as stardust.”

At an altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles) above sea level, TAU-SAT1 will orbit the earth at a speed of 27,600 kilometers per hour, or 7.6 kilometers per second, completing a circuit around Earth every 90 minutes.

“It’s a big day for TAU,” said Colin Price, head of the Porter Department of Environmental Studies. “We have now joined the ‘Civil Space Revolution,’ called New Space, in which, unlike Old Space, not only giant companies with huge budgets and large teams of engineers can build and launch satellites.

“A few years ago we established the Center for Nanosatellites, with the goal to build small ‘CubeSat’ for research purposes. We were able to prove that with the right planning, miniaturization and modulation of many technologies, small satellites can be built and launched into space within two years by students, at a fraction of the budget needed in Old Space.”

Meir Ariel, director of TAU’s Center for Nanosatellites, said of TAU-SAT1’s mission: “We know that that there are high-energy particles moving through space that originate from the sun’s cosmic radiation. Our scientific task is to monitor this radiation, and to measure the flux of these particles and their products. It should be understood that space is a hostile environment, not only for humans but also for electronic systems. When these particles hit astronauts or electronic equipment in space, they can cause significant damage. The scientific information collected by our satellite will enable the design of protective means for astronauts and space systems.”

With the infrastructure from TAU-SAT1 in place, the university’s researchers are already planning on developing their second nanosatellite, tentatively named TAU-SAT2.

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