SOAR (Satellite for Orbital Aerodynamics Research) will travel to the International Space Station before being deployed to an extremely low Earth orbit to begin its demonstrator mission. The 3U CubeSat will feature fins made from a variety of different materials that are expected to interact with the atmosphere in different ways in an orbit under 450km above the Earth’s surface.
Operating this low will not only avoid problems with space debris that exists at higher altitudes, it will also benefit the satellite’s Earth observation capabilities and reduce communications latency. In addition, at SOAR’s end-of-mission, it will be easier to de-orbit the CubeSat from this low orbit, further minimising the chances of adding to the space debris problem. The mission is part of the wider €5.7m DISCOVERER project being led by Manchester University.
“The satellite represents the culmination of a huge amount of technology development over many years,” said Dr Peter Roberts, the scientific coordinator for DISCOVERER.
“We’re breaking new ground with a satellite designed specifically to explore aerodynamic effects in very low Earth orbits, whilst simultaneously measuring atmospheric parameters such as density and composition.”
SOAR features a set of fins that are coated with four different materials for testing and can be individually rotated to different angles. The fins will be folded and stowed against the spacecraft body for launch then deployed once the satellite is in orbit. These steerable fins will also be used as control surfaces to demonstrate novel aerodynamic control manoeuvres.
The DISCOVERER project is also developing atmosphere breathing electric propulsion prototypes that aim to utilise the residual atmosphere in low orbits as a propellant. This has the potential to keep the satellites in orbit indefinitely despite the drag acting upon them, but also allows them to re-enter quickly and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere when they reach the end of their mission.