Auckland, we have a problem: Student satellite lost in space

New Zealand’s first student-built satellite appears to be lost in space.

An Auckland University team was unable to locate its APSS-1satellite after it was successfully deployed by Rocket Lab during its November 20 “Return to Sender” mission.

A Rocket Lab spokeswoman said, “Payload deployment on the ‘Return to Sender’ mission was nominal and all of the satellites were placed in their target orbits, as planned.”

Then, as per its standard practice, it gave each customer the co-ordinates at time of deployment. From that point, it is up to each client to locate and track their own bird.

It is not unusual for it to take one or even two days to get a lock on one of the tiny “cubesat” class of satellites typically launched by Rocket Lab, an insider said.

But the Herald understands that three days after launch, Auckland University was still trying to make radio contact with APSS-1. Earlier today, the university had no immediate statement, but said it was preparing to make its first public comment later today – some 10 days after the launch.

Financial losses are mitigated by the fact that Rocket Lab covered launch costs under a sponsorship, while a donation from now US-based engineering alumnus Dr Neil Paton and his wife Louise helped to set up Auckland University’s Programme for Space Systems, under which a team of students created Waka Āmiorangi Aotearoa (the New Zealand satellite) APSS-1.

But it still means that thousands of hours put in by 26 students programme who conceived, designed and built the satellite.

APSS-1 was created with better quake predictions in mind.

It was designed to measure electrical activity in the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere right at the edge of space, a region known as the ionosphere. Because the ionosphere is ionised by solar and cosmic radiation and is affected by phenomena such as solar winds, it is uniquely reactive to changing magnetic and electrical conditions. That means it affects radio and GPS signals here on Earth, including television, internet and telephone communications.

But scientists are also curious to what extent and how the ionosphere is affected by geophysical activity on Earth, including whether the electrical disturbances that occur in the ionosphere might be correlated with earthquakes. Insights into the ionosphere might also help us better prepare for disruption to communications technologies.

Things do go wrong in the space industry. As Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck has frequently observed, “There are 10,000 ways a mission can go wrong and only one way it can go right.”

And regardless of whether their bird is ultimately located, the students involved earned the respect of Rocket Lab’s founder – self-taught F&P Appliances apprentice Beck.

“The APSS-1 mission is a triumph for the students and faculty at the University of Auckland and a significant step for the New Zealand space industry overall,” Beck said pre-launch.

“Less than four years ago we didn’t have domestic space launch capability and now, we’re launching New Zealand’s first student-built satellite from Kiwi soil. It marks the beginning of a whole new era of space research, development, and opportunity for local students.”

The APSS-1 project was multi-disciplinary, encouraging undergraduates across different faculties – including Engineering, Science and Business and Arts – to work together to come up with the concept for a satellite. Participants have gone on to work in the aerospace industry both in New Zealand and overseas, including at Nasa.

The busy “Return to Sender” mission also saw Rocket Lab’s first booster-stage retrieval, and some $286,000 raised for Auckland’s Starship children’s hospital as US-billionaire-stranded-in-NZ Gabe Newell donated $1 for everyone who watched the launch livestream.

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