Wednesday 22 April 2015

NTU students get to operate actual satellites in space

Working with simulators is simply no substitute for the real thing, they say
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2015

AFTER years of using simulators, students here can finally operate an actual satellite.

Engineering students and budding satellite engineers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are now able to work with genuine satellites, in a breakthrough several years in the making.

It came about after three of the university's satellites completed their respective space missions last year, which included testing sensors built by students from the university.

"While the simulations are robust and have scenarios based on real challenges, nothing beats the actual experience of controlling a real satellite in space, which encounters situational challenges in real time," said Associate Professor Low Kay Soon, director of NTU's Satellite Research Centre, yesterday.

The satellites have been in space for a combined seven years and include the X-SAT, Singapore's first locally built satellite. Their availability to researchers, and students under the undergraduate satellite programme, will be a major boost.

Simulators cannot accurately replicate, for instance, inclement weather which causes fluctuations in the signal, affecting how well commands from the ground station are sent and received.

Training with a real satellite will also help staff to respond faster, said research engineer Chin Shi Tong, 25, who joined the centre two years ago.

While she had extensive training using a simulator, it is quite different from a real satellite, she stressed.

There is only a 10-minute window, called a ground pass, which is when the satellite is within range to receive commands from the ground station.

"I was very nervous the first time because we have only such a short amount of time to complete the uploading and downloading of commands," she said.

It took her a few attempts to get over her nerves and to get used to encountering unexpected conditions, which she believes training with real satellites would now help new staff prepare for.

"These are skills which cannot be learnt through a simulator or books," she said.

For undergraduates like Mr A. Saravanan, 24, just being able to say he has operated a real satellite is an achievement. "It really brings my learning beyond the classroom and into outer space," said the electrical and electronic engineering student.

Yesterday also marked X-SAT's fourth anniversary in space. It has travelled more than 930 million km since it was launched in April 2011 and has taken more than 9,000 photographs - from the haze in Indonesia's Riau province to environmental conditions of large urban cities.

NTU is expected to launch two new satellites - Velox-CI and Velox-II - later this year.

They will be used for tropical climate monitoring and to test experimental satellite-based communication respectively.

Calling X-SAT. Calling VELOX. This is #NTUsg engineering undergrad operating our satellites in outer space as part of our training now that your space missions have been completed.
Posted by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore on Sunday, April 19, 2015

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