Finland regions

A small satellite transforms the Finnish space program

2022 has been a busy time for space launches – with the liftoff of the first fully private space mission last week and the launch of NASA and SpaceX’s Crew-4 to the International Space Station postponed until later this month . On a more international level, a new player is emerging in the space industry. Launched this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Finland will soon send its first science satellite, Foresail-1, into space.

Finland has developed radar satellites in the past, but Foresail-1 will be the first to collect data for science. Developed by Finland’s Center of Excellence for Sustainable Space Research, the nanosatellite, which weighs around nine pounds and looks like a metal milk carton, will seek new details about the radiation environment in Earth’s atmosphere. . This unique area that carpets the planet is where different spatial radiation fields co-exist. Exposure to these rays is known to put astronauts at risk of radiation sickness, increased risk of cancer and degenerative diseases.

Satellites in this radiation belt are also bombarded with so much radiation energy that they end up suffering adverse effects that can cut a mission short. Radiation storms can destroy critical components, cause charging problems, and result in the total loss of the satellite. If Foresail-1 can withstand the harsh conditions, the mission could lead to a better understanding of the environment and help build future cheaper satellites that can last longer.

The next generation of space exploration is about sustainability, says Jaan Praks, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Aalto University, whose team helped plan the mission and build Foresail-1. This is why Finland is starting its foray into space on a smaller scale.

“We’re pushing the boundaries with platform technology,” he says. “We watch [to] operate the satellite for at least five years and even beyond, which is unusual for such a small satellite”.

Because the pandemic made it difficult to acquire the components they needed to build the technology, Praks says Foresail-1 took about four years to complete, and its original launch date had to be pushed back by a year. But the extra time has given the team the opportunity to develop and integrate tools that will improve the chances of mission success.

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Foresail-1’s primary payload is a particle telescope, which will be used to measure electrons exiting the radiation atmosphere in low Earth orbit (LEO). Its second and arguably most impressive piece of equipment will be an electrostatic plasma brake, a device that will prevent the craft from becoming space junk by pushing it out of orbit to burn up in the atmosphere. It usually takes years for space junk to fall into Earth’s atmosphere, but using a plasma brake can turn that time into two months.

One of the technological objectives of Foresail-1 is to demonstrate the usefulness of this plasma brake. The way the Plasma Brake works is that it “increases drag using electromagnetic fields,” says Prak, which by slowing it down brings the satellite’s orbit close enough to Earth that it falls and eventually burns up. in the air.

After a few months of scientific observation, the researchers will use the brake and about 60 feet of tether to lower the satellite a few tens of kilometers further into LEO, where it will remain for the rest of its life.

New technological advances have reduced the average size of satellites, says Rami Vainio, professor of space physics at the University of Turku in Finland, who led the development of the particle telescope. “Very often these satellites don’t have rocket engines or thrusters powerful enough to bring them down in a controlled way.”

He says this new deorbiting technique will allow Finnish researchers to “probe more versatile regions of the Earth’s environment.” If successful, it will be the first time a thrusterless nanosatellite has demonstrated this maneuver. The satellite blueprints will also be available as an open source project that can be used in future missions.

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Although the satellite is Finland’s first to make scientific observations, the country has a long history of space collaboration. The tiny nation has been a member of the European Space Agency since 1995, but has only recently become an important partner in many large-scale international space operations. For example, Finland is one of the largest providers of commercial radar imaging satellites in the world, and at times NASA has used Finnish technology to provide Mars missions, like Perseverance, with pressure sensors to help take atmospheric measurements on the red planet.

The revolution of tiny cube-shaped satellites, or CubeSats, that began a few years ago has prompted Finnish researchers to embark on the development of their own scientific space missions. For many of its citizens, Foresail-1 is a beacon of the country’s brilliant entry and future growth in the space industry. The successor to the current satellite is already in preparation. “The next mission, Foresail-2, is expected to be twice as large and to go to a very difficult area where no CubeSat has flown before inside radiation belts,” Praks said.

Currently, Finland does not have its own space agency – the Finnish Space Committee only manages national space policy and strategy, not the creation or development of missions. The new satellite mission marks the first step towards building a more robust agency capable of supporting a number of ambitious projects, says Praks.

“I hope we are moving towards our own Finnish space program,” says Praks. “Having our own little program will provide even more material for future missions with larger satellites. [to reach further out] in the solar system. »