Tiny SkyHopper CubeSat to search for answers to big questions in astronomy

July 17 / 195

Artist's impression of the SkyHopper CubeSat and its science targets. SkyHopper team
Artist's impression of the SkyHopper CubeSat and its science targets. SkyHopper team

Researchers from the Faculty of Science and the Melbourne School of Engineering are working to design, build and launch into space a small but powerful ‘fast-response infrared telescope’, a nano-satellite known generically as a CubeSat.

The researchers – with contributions from colleagues at several other research institutions in Australia and abroad – are hoping to launch the nano-satellite by early 2021.

The project has two main objectives: to search for potentially-habitable Earth-sized planets around red dwarfs (the most common stars in our neighbourhood), and to observe the infrared afterglows of Gamma Ray Bursts, the Universe’s most powerful explosions after the Big Bang. 

Research team leader Dr Michele Trenti (School of Physics) says the University of Melbourne’s CubeSat, to be known as SkyHopper, will potentially make some “truly ground-breaking discoveries”.

“A CubeSat is small enough to be developed by a university, but can carry a lot of sophisticated instrumentation packed into a small satellite, making space accessible on a modest budget,” adds SkyHopper’s team member Dr Katie Mack. 

CubeSats are measured in 10cm cubed blocks, and SkyHopper will be one of the largest cubesats ever launched: the equivalent of 12 blocks in volume, but it will still weigh less than 24 kilograms. 

During the launch phase, SkyHopper will measure 240mm x 220mm x 360mm, but once it reaches orbit and extends its solar arrays, it will have a wingspan of over one meter.

Dr Trenti says one of the major advantages of astronomical observations from space is that the images are sharper because Earth’s atmosphere is not “in the way.”

“Earth’s atmosphere contains water molecules and other compounds which can absorb the infrared light coming from space,” he says.

“In addition, these molecules emit light at similar wavelengths, creating a time-variable atmospheric background. This limits our ability to measure the luminosity of stars to the precision needed to detect the presence of planets orbiting in front of them."

Learn more about the SkyHopper project when Dr Trenti delivers a public lecture, “The Promise of Nanosatellites: Getting the University of Melbourne's fast response telescope into space” on Friday 21 July at 6.30pm or at the SkyHopper webpage

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