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Students’ space experiment recovered from Arctic Circle

12 March 2014 Strathclyde, University of

A team of students has recovered crucial data from an innovative experiment that could reduce the cost of space construction – with help from Swedish hunters.

Science and engineering students from the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow are working with Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology to develop a smart space foundation for larger structures to be built on, from telescopes to a new generation of telecommunications antennae.

The web-like platform, known as Suaineadh – or ‘twisting’ in Scots Gaelic, was launched on-board the sounding rocket REXUS12 from the Swedish space centre Esrange in March 2012.

However, the section of the experiment with the recorded data could not be found after re-entry and, despite a recovery mission in Northern Sweden, the students were forced to concede defeat after spending 10 days in freezing conditions above the Arctic Circle – until its discovery by Swedish hunters 18 months later.

Thomas Sinn, Project Manager for the experiment at the University of Strathclyde, said: “We put a huge amount of work into the project and spent years in collaboration with partners with the hope of maximising the success of the experiment and advancing technology in a critical area of space research.

“We thought our work had been in vain but we were delighted when we received the news that the experiment had been found and it was a relief to find that all of the data had remained intact during 18 months in the wilderness.

“The cameras attached to the central section have provided almost 1,000 images that have let us see the ejection of the web and show the deployment – held in tension by the centrifugal forces – resulting in an interesting deployment sequence.

“This is a significant step forward and will allow future projects to improve the concept and help make ambitious space projects involving large structures more technically feasible.”

Suaineadh is a web-like structure that can change shape when in orbit. It was launched on a rocket to an altitude of 90 km before being ejected into the low-gravity environment. The two-metre-square web, weighted in four corners, spins upon its release. In low-gravity, unlike on earth, the structure would be strong enough to act as a foundation for construction, which could be carried out by specially-designed robots.

Malcolm McRobb, of the University of Glasgow, added: “The purpose behind the Suaineadh experiment was to provide a proof-of-concept that is scalable in design.

“We imagine that such a device could one day be adapted to deploy much larger structures in space, ranging from huge antenna arrays, solar isolators, solar panels, solar sails, and even scaffolding structures from which to build other structures from whilst in orbit about the Earth.

“The possibilities are as endless as they are vast, and that is the reason why Suaineadh was such an exciting project to work on as a university student."

Researchers at the three institutions are now working on the post-processing of the collected data to validate deployment simulations. Such simulations can be used to develop space structures faster, without the need for expensive testing in space.

The management and system integration of the project was led by students from the University of Strathclyde, while the University of Glasgow team worked on the mechanical design and construction.

The team from Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology looked after the electronic design and telecommunications. In 2010, the team successfully bid at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) to have the project carried on a REXUS sounding rocket.

The project was supported by the universities and the Advanced Concepts Team of the European Space Agency.

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