4 mins read 02 Aug 2022

University of Melbourne’s SpIRIT satellite launching in 2023

The SpIRIT spacecraft, designed and built at the University of Melbourne, has been booked to launch in April 2023 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. 

Render of the SpIRIT satellite. Credit: Melbourne Space Laboratory.

A miniature spaceship

The University of Melbourne has announced that its SpIRIT satellite has been booked with launch service provider ISISPACE to blast off on a Falcon 9 rocket in April 2023.

No larger than a shoebox, the 11.5kg 6-unit SpIRIT (an abbreviation of the Space Industry Responsive Intelligent Thermal satellite) is being designed and built by a consortium led by the Melbourne Space Laboratory at the University of Melbourne. It is the product of an Australian-first collaboration between many companies locally and internationally. The participating partners from the Australian space industry include Inovor Technologies, Sitael Australia, Nova Systems and Neumann Space.

It carries one main payload to perform advanced X-ray remote sensing, called the HERMES instrument, which was developed with funding by the Italian Space Agency and by the European Commission H2020 framework. The purpose of the X-ray detector is to discover gamma rays, which are generated by some of the most powerful explosions in the universe. More broadly, the satellite is a project in interdisciplinary collaboration and technology readiness.

The SpIRIT satellite is a partnership between many Australian private space companies as well as the Italian Space Agency. Credit: University of Melbourne.

Once in orbit at an altitude of 550km, SpIRIT will deploy its solar panels and thermal radiators stretching to nearly a metre long. It will operate for two years, gathering data from deep space. It will also run a suite of powerful scientific instruments, cameras, guidance systems, communication antennae, on-board computers with artificial intelligence capabilities, and even its own electric propulsion thruster by Neumann Space.

With all these functionalities in one 30cm x 20cm x 10cm unit, it has been dubbed “a miniaturised spaceship” by principal investigator Professor Michele Trenti from the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne.

Joining a rideshare to orbit

The satellite has been booked to fly with ISISPACE, one of the world's most experienced launch service providers. Founded in 2006 and based in The Netherlands, ISISPACE provides turn-key solutions for small satellite missions, including launch and operations for in-orbit delivery, which is perfect for the SpIRIT mission.

“We're very happy to support the University of Melbourne with our reliable launch services to bring their satellite to orbit… ISILAUNCH is dedicated to offering high-quality service and support to its customers, in order to accomplish customer mission success,” Director of ISILAUNCH Abe Bonnema said.

In true rideshare style, ISISPACE will package SpIRIT in a canister and integrate it into a ring hosting dozens of other small satellites, and then deliver the package to Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA.

From there, it will take a short ride to space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The scheduled mission is called Transporter 8, which is a dedicated flight to a sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) carrying dozens of small satellites for commercial and government customers.

SpIRIT will enter sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), which allows constant sun exposure for energy. Credit: Melbourne Space Laboratory

An ambitious civil space mission

The possibility of SpIRIT was realised in 2020 when the Australian Space Agency selected the mission for funding, injecting nearly $4 million into this space science mission through its International Space Investment Initiative. According to Australian Space Agency Head, Enrico Palermo, the project has been well worth the funding so far.

“The pace at which progress is being made on SpIRIT is testament to the knowledge and skill that exists in the Australian space sector and what can be achieved when we collaborate with our international partners. I thank our partners at the Italian Space Agency, ASI for their contributions to this project,” Mr Palermo said.

Since that announcement in 2020, it has only taken two years for the team to sign a launch contract.

“This demonstrates how a nanosatellite project can successfully combine best practices in project management and systems engineering, traditionally the preserve of larger missions, with the innate agility of a nanosatellite project,” Professor Trenti said.

The SpIRIT nanosatellite mission patch showcasing the Australia-Italy partnership. Credit: The University of Melbourne.

Deputy Principal Investigator Dr Airlie Chapman from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the University of Melbourne argues that SpIRIT may be the most ambitious civil space mission since FedSat, an Australian scientific research satellite launched in 2002. 

“It represents an outstanding opportunity to gain highly valuable experience for contributing to future missions reaching the moon and beyond, and to strengthen the Australian Space Sector, growing international reputation and collaboration opportunities,” Dr Chapman said.

SpIRIT is an exciting collaborative project that showcases our local talent and will contribute to Australia’s growing flight heritage.

Further information about the satellite can be found in a previous article by SpaceAustralia.