Over the last couple weeks our engineering department hit one of their biggest milestones to date: the Design Freeze.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a design freeze is a technique used in project management that describes the endpoint of the development stage of a product. It’s essentially a date or timeframe in which the Project or Engineering Manager will “freeze the design”, meaning that the engineering teams must work out the technical requirements necessary – i.e., all of the mandatory features – to have a project’s design ready for production.
Needless to say, it’s a huge milestone for any project. And this is especially true for our inaugural CubeSat, ACRUX-1.
Which is why there has been a lot to celebrate recently here at MSP.
“We achieved every single one of the 10 key features we needed to develop before the design freeze,” says Blake Fuller, our Engineering Manager. “If we had to launch today, we could with what we have.”
Our engineering department put in an extraordinary amount of hard work towards successfully meeting the design freeze, and we spoke to some of our engineers to see how they went.
Putting the pieces together: Flight Vehicle
For Will Ling, the Flight Vehicle Team Lead, his work doesn’t just fit into the big picture – it is the big picture. He manages the team responsible for the build of the CubeSat and integrating all the physical internal and external components. That means making sure all the pieces in the CubeSat puzzle fit together.
The design freeze was a tough milestone to reach, Will says. There was a lot of hardware assembly to get done, and still more to do. But he’s glad they now have a fully-assembled and functional prototype of ACRUX-1, and his team worked hard to get there. It’s the first time MSP has had such a prototype.
The prototype will be useful for debugging purposes, as well as vibration testing (mimicking the conditions of launch) and thermal baking (quite literally, baking it in an oven – this will help determine how much mass might be lost during launch).
Will and his team will continue to work through the integration and assembly of future prototypes, and Will is keen to get started on the next leg of work.
A place in the sun: Power Team
The design freeze was a big achievement for another team as well – the Power Team. Shaun Pye, the Power Team Lead, says that getting to design freeze meant his team needed to hit some significant technical milestones in order to verify their subsystem for ACRUX-1.
The big test for this came through just under the design freeze deadline. His team ran an integrated test of the subsystem over an extended period of time, which aimed to demonstrate the working functionality of all power system features. To do this, they needed to mimic energy from the sun in order to test the subsystem’s ability to harvest, store and distribute power.
“This involved shining light onto solar panels, converting that energy to electrical energy, and then passing it through to charge the batteries whilst also making it available for downstream satellite systems,” says Shaun.
It was a huge effort for his team to finish this test by the design freeze, and a bit of extra time was required. But they were able to get it done.
“All of the data obtained during the test is evidence that proves that we did in fact complete the test and have the results to show,” Shaun says. “It also gives us great insight into exactly how the power system is performing and what parts of the system we may want to put particular focus on for a future test.”
It’s an achievement that Shaun has been working towards for over two years – to get to the stage where he can actually say ‘the power system works,’ and the core functionality of the system would in fact be capable of supporting a successful mission.
Looking forward, there is more testing to come and many more goals to reach, such as optimisation, flight qualification and making sure to iron out bugs along the way, to name a few.
“Regardless,” says Shaun, “every time we hit a new technical milestone our confidence increases.”
Houston, we have a dashboard: Mission Operations
While the design freeze proved to be a massive feat for some teams, for others, it wasn’t quite as stressful. Such was the case for the Mission Operations team.
“Since the design freeze was primarily focused on the hardware side of things, our deadline isn’t actually until August,” says Adam Kues, a software developer in Mission Ops. “But we did assist the hardware teams in helping to get their work done.”
Adam’s work involves writing the code that will be used by ground control to receive transmissions from the satellite when it is in orbit. It will also help decode the data and enable it to be visualised and analysed.
During the most recent engineering review, Adam was able to showcase the Mission Ops graphical user interface (GUI) for the other engineering teams. This GUI is the dashboard on which all ACRUX-1 data will be displayed. For Adam and his team, completing the first functioning iteration of the dashboard was a big milestone that coincided with the design freeze.
“[Being able to showcase the GUI] represents a lot of backend work that was done to implement the necessary functionality,” says Adam. Such functionality includes being able to send and receive commands as well as store data locally.
“It’s likely to be an early design for what the final Mission Operations control panel will look like,” he says. “But we’ve been consulting the other teams during the making of the GUI, and the feedback we’ve received so far has been positive.”
All systems are go (for the next phase of work)
Although ACRUX-1 could technically launch with what we have, the next phase of work is vital to ensuring that our launch is actually successful, says Blake. There are full integrations tests that need to be done and “technical debt” to address so we can ensure that our CubeSat performs optimally during and after launch, as well as in low Earth orbit.
But that in no way diminishes the extraordinary work done to date.
“I’m astounded by the conviction and dedication of the entire engineering team to meet Design Freeze,” says Blake. “We set incredibly challenging stretch goals for the team and everyone dug deep to put together three years of work in the last few weeks.”
It was a milestone well worth celebrating!