Spurring satellite research

25 January 2018 | ResearchEducation
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Prof Low (far right) and his students from NUS Engineering with a model of a small satellite that is being developed for applications like maritime and aviation security

NUS Engineering has teamed up with the DSO National Laboratories (DSO) to launch the Satellite Technology and Research Centre (STAR) to drive Singapore’s space industry and develop cutting-edge capabilities in distributed satellite systems. Inaugurated on 25 January by Professor Ho Teck Hua, NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost, the centre will focus on developing multiple scalable small satellites in formation or constellation of various sizes and weights for different applications.

Over the last five years, there has been an increase of interest in miniaturised satellites that weigh up to only 20 kilogrammes, a mere fraction of the conventional satellites that could weigh up to thousands of kilogrammes.

A fleet of small satellites flying in formation or constellation could possibly cover the whole Earth and reduce latency, explained NUS Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Low Kay Soon, who helms the new centre. This will allow the satellites to collect more accurate and complete information for researchers. Small satellites are also relatively cheaper to produce, test and launch, have the possibility to be mass produced, and require a much shorter time to market than the bigger conventional satellites.

The centre hopes to develop a fleet of 20kg satellites to be deployed in space for applications such as maritime and aerospace security by 2022.

“STAR aspires to be a leading centre for advanced distributed satellite systems. We will build and demonstrate the use of miniaturised satellites for various applications, such as detection and monitoring of airplanes and ships. Such capabilities will greatly enhance Singapore’s position as an aerospace and maritime hub,” said Prof Low.

He further shared that the centre will work with industry players — both established companies and start-ups — by providing expertise and state-of-the-art satellite platforms or subsystems.

“The involvement of industry partners means the centre is well-positioned to translate technological and research output into product innovation,” commented Prof Ho in his opening address at the official launch of the centre, adding that with STAR’s strong capabilities and their partnerships, he is confident the centre will succeed.

STAR aspires to be a leading centre for advanced distributed satellite systems. We will build and demonstrate the use of miniaturised satellites for various applications, such as detection and monitoring of airplanes and ships. Such capabilities will greatly enhance Singapore’s position as an aerospace and maritime hub.

Supported by the Singapore Economic Development Board, the 1400sqm facility located in the Singapore Wind Tunnel Facility on the NUS Kent Ridge campus currently houses some 50 research staff and students.

Ongoing research at STAR involves work in mission design such as collaborative sensing, as well as in subsystem and component development, including a precise navigation system, a highly efficient power management system and advanced control of satellite propulsion systems.

STAR will offer NUS Engineering undergraduates the opportunity to take on satellite and space-related projects, providing them exposure to real-life project applications and a multidisciplinary, team-based experience in the space industry. Undergraduate students are already currently working on projects involving the use of satellites for remote sensing of agriculture, as well as virtual testing of the power system of a satellite in orbit.

STAR comprises a state-of-the art clean room facility for satellite testing and assembly works, electrostatic discharge controlled laboratories for research and student projects, as well as environmental testing facilities like a thermal chamber and a vacuum chamber.

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Prof Low (far left) sharing the process of developing the small satellite with (from right) CEO of DSO Mr Cheong Chee Hoo, Prof Ho and Dean of NUS Engineering Professor Chua Kee Chaing

STAR will serve as a hub for research, education and commercialisation of expertise and technologies relating to the space industry, said Prof Low.

“For Singapore to gain a strong foothold in this knowledge-intensive sector, it is crucial to develop a vibrant space innovation ecosystem comprising a critical mass of home-grown talents, a thriving space industry, as well as a conducive research environment where scientists, engineers and industry partners jointly innovate and create new technologies to address satellite technology challenges. Leveraging on STAR, NUS Engineering can play a key role in shaping Singapore’s future as a spacetech leader,” he added.