Saturday, 6 July 2019

One week ago today, the Melbourne Space Program made a bit of history: the ACRUX-1 mission was a success. 

Here is a quick recap of the events from 29 June 2019.

At 2.40pm AEST, the Melbourne Space Program’s student-built CubeSat, ACRUX-1, was launched from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 aboard an Electron rocket, on a mission titled “Make It Rain”. Launch Complex 1 is located on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

The livestream of the Make It Rain launch from Saturday, 29 June. Listen for the MSP shout-out at 7:37-7:52. Credit: Rocket Lab.

 

The moment was surreal, but the emotion in the room was palpable: watching the Electron rocket leave Earth, with ACRUX-1 aboard, was an image none of us will forget.

ACRUX-1 had a front-row top-notch seat to its own launch. (Credit: Image from Rocket Lab, scribble by Blake Fuller. Shared with permission from both.) Click here to watch a short but sweet video from Rocket Lab of the payload deployment from the Electron rocket. 

But our work had only just begun. The successful launch of Rocket Lab’s Make It Rain mission brought us one giant step closer to the crux of our own satellite’s mission.

By 3.30pm AEST, the Electron rocket had successfully deployed ACRUX-1 into LEO (Lower Earth Orbit).

With the detumbling process that takes place after a CubeSat is deployed, our first potential opportunity to ‘hear’ from ACRUX-1 would occur around 4:10pm AEST.

From here on out, whatever news we received would determine whether or not ACRUX-1 worked. As the excitement and exhilaration of the rocket launch had filled the room, once the livestream came to an end we were keenly aware of what may – or may not – lie ahead for us.

Building and launching a CubeSat, however, is a tricky, high-risk endeavour. The success rates for a CubeSat mission are on average 45% for academia (such as universities and cross-collaborating departments) and 77% for industry such as commercial or privately-owned satellite manufacturing companies. 

And for student-run volunteer organisations like us? The numbers are still out on that one.

The Melbourne Space Program is neither part of academia or industry: ACRUX-1 is one of the first completely student-led satellite development and launch initiatives – that is, one unsupported by university staff – from start to finish.

All of the launch and technical licensing, permits, certificates and agreements were successfully secured by our own team of students as well. In fact, we were the first student-run organisation to get accepted by the Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA) for radio spectrum licensing and then be listed with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as an Australian organisation.

A day, and a photo, that will go down in MSP history. Credit: Shaun Pye, Melbourne Space Program.

Access to space in other developed nations is relatively easy compared to what we’ve come up against in Australia. And now came that final moment of truth: would we receive a beacon, that “ping”, from ACRUX-1?

There is no guarantee that a beacon could be received at the first opportunity; but this does not equate to mission failure. Establishing contact can take time, and patience — some CubeSats aren’t heard from for hours or even days, even when ground stations from around the world work together to “find” them in orbit.

But at 6.13 pm that night, we heard the good news: our engineering manager, Blake Fuller, received word from Mark Jessop at SATNOGS that they had started receiving telemetry, and that first ping from ACRUX-1 from their SATNOGS ground station in Adelaide.

It was then that we could confirm: MISSION SUCCESS.

ACRUX-1, the CubeSat we have spent more than three years building – worked. It bloody worked! 

***

It’s the week since the launch of ACRUX-1, and the work continues. For the first 2-3 days of flight we had good data from the satellite as it beaconed healthily. Unfortunately, we’ve had trouble hearing from the satellite for a few days now. We are commanding ACRUX-1 into a lower power mode, and we’ll find out in the coming days if this gives it the ability to charge its batteries and resume beaconing.

Regardless, we consider those 2-3 days of good data & healthy beaconing as achievements worth celebrating, as these were beyond even what we had defined as our own mission success.

The moment following the first beacon received. Mission success! Credit: Johanna Rigby, Melbourne Space Program.

The overwhelming amount of support and well wishes we’ve received over the course of the week has been extraordinary from the local Australian and the international space community, as well as the public. And we were ecstatic about the timely mission success, which just happened to help mark the one-year anniversary of the Australian Space Agency.

We especially owe a great deal of gratitude to SATNOGS for their support of ACRUX-1. Without them, the ACRUX-1 mission would not have been a success.  

Getting something into space is not easy; getting it to work is even harder. And trying to do both of those things from Australia, despite regulations and policies that have significantly suppressed the growth of an Aussie space sector over the past 30 years?

It felt damn near impossible. But we persevered, regardless of the odds, fighting for every bit we gained in support, funding and respect.

And we did it: ACRUX-1 achieved mission success – and so did the Melbourne Space Program.

 

Written by: Renae Kiely and Megan Toomey


Back