With the help of enthusiastic European ham radio operators, Aalborg University engineering students now have two-way communication with their home-built ESA-sponsored satellite AAUSAT5 that was sent into orbit around Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) on October 5.
Initial problems communicating with the satellite from the control center in Aalborg made the team extra dependent on outside help. And there has been no shortage of help from well-placed ham operators further south in Europe.
Unconventional solution works
Aalborg is too far north relative to the satellite's orbit and attempts to improve the ground station in Aalborg have not enabled the desired contact. Instead, Aalborg University sent special equipment down to German ham radio operator Mike "DK3WN" Rupprecht in Brombachtal, south of Frankfurt, so he can act as the liaison between the student's control center in Aalborg and the satellite in space when it passes over Europe. The unconventional solution has been found to work.
"So we celebrated with champagne when we managed both to hear the satellite and send commands to it. We were disappointed that there was no contact at first, but we never lost heart. There has always been small progress that we built on step by step," says fourth-year engineering student Anders Kalør from the AAUSAT5 team.
For classmate Lasse Bromose, after some hectic weeks of troubleshooting and attempts at optimizations, this is almost a blessing in disguise.
"I've learned more about radio communication the past three weeks than in the entire rest of the program. So as training it has been perfect. If the whole thing had worked from the beginning, our interest would have of course dropped after the first week with the satellite in space," he says.
Optimistic status report to ESA
Aalborg University has just reported to the ESA on the launch and the first part of the mission where AAUSAT5 and a commercial satellite from GomSpace in Northern Jutland are the first ESA satellites ever sent into orbit directly from the space station. The report describes in detail the challenges and proven solutions, and the current report on the status is optimistic:
"Two-way communication is a very big step for the mission. AAUSAT5 can easily be heard in Aalborg via equipment in Germany, and the satellite can receive and respond to commands sent from Aalborg. So we've been able to reprogram the radio transmitter and receiver on board as a first step towards optimizing the connection," summarizes Associate Professor Jens Dalsgaard Nielsen who is supervising the team.
Race against time
The quest for further improvements continues and the next major goal is to find out whether the satellite is capable of registering ships in the water it flies over as planned, and, if so, whether it can send the information on the ships' positions down to the control center.
"Our location in Aalborg is unlikely to fully explain the problems we're experiencing in making a stable connection to AAUSAT5. So we're poring over the data we get in because they can help identify specific problems. Both so that we can try to solve them and so that we can apply our experience to the development of AAUSAT6," says engineering student Anders Kalør.
In this regard, Associate Professor and supervisor Jesper Abildgaard Larsen encourages the students to work methodically and only change one thing at a time so they know what works -- and so they don't change anything that is actually working. But time is both a friend and an enemy:
"Because of the broadcast from the space station, AAUSAT5 is at a much lower altitude than the satellites we've previously sent up. It will inevitably lose altitude and completely disappear at an earlier stage than usual. It has already dropped five kilometers. At first, this provides a better radio connection because it comes closer to Earth, but when it comes too close, it burns up," states Jesper Abildgaard Larsen.
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