Czechs readying second-generation nanosatellite for SpaceX launch

Nanosatellite VZLUSAT-2, photo: archive of VZLU

Scientists at the Czech Aerospace Research Centre, or VZLÚ, hope to launch a second nanosatellite into orbit within weeks. The first, developed in tandem with several Czech engineering firms and universities, has been circling the Earth now for three years – an engineering triumph, as tiny satellites are especially vulnerable to cosmic radiation.

If all goes according to plan, the second Czech nanosatellite in history, dubbed the VZLUsat-2, will launch in mid-December. At the moment, it is in the Netherlands, but the delicate instrument is due to take off from the United States, Juraj Dudáš, head of satellite systems at VZLÚ, told Czech Radio.

“The launch is planed for December 18. So, we hope that by the Christmas holidays, the satellite will be in orbit and we will be able to communicate with it. We’ll see. Our launch provider, SpaceX, has a very strict timetable, but we hope it will be by year’s end.”

The VZLUsat-2 consists of three cubes each measuring just 10 by 10 centimetres. It will be released from a Falcon 9 rocket designed and built by SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk of Tesla fame.

Nanosatellite VZLUSAT-2, photo: archive of VZLU

Once the nanosatellite is at an altitude of 500 kilometres, a team at the University of West Bohemia’s faculty of Electrical Engineering will handle the communications.

The mission of the VZLUsat-1 was mainly to collect data for terrestrial radiation research and verify the properties of newly develop composites. Project manager Vladimír Dániel, a specialist in CubeSat satellites and instruments for use in space, says the second-generation nanosatellite has a more specific aim.

“VZLUsat-2 has new, more advanced technologies on board. Primarily, this concerns precision control of the satellite’s orientation. The nanosatellite has two experimental cameras that will take pictures of the Earth, mainly the Czech Republic. Precise orientation is key to getting the exact images we want.”

The main advantage of nanosatellites, as opposed to larger models, is that they are less expensive to launch into orbit. Another advantage is that many components are now standardized, meaning a fair number of subcontractors can supply CubeSat components relatively quickly.

But nanosatellites also have their disadvantages, notes project manager Vladimír Dániel.

“The most pressing problem is cosmic radiation, which is the most common killer of nanoparticles. Another big problem are rapid temperature changes. We have counted on temperatures from minus 70 degrees to 60 degrees Celsius, which are rather significant. And these big fluctuations occur every 90 minutes because it is rotating. So, it is even a great success when a nanosatellite operates for more than a year.”

The high-quality radiation shields and protective casings developed by the Czech partner organisations for individual electronic devices contributed to that success. VZLUsat-2 is also part of the strategic plan of the Space 2030 project, which aims to build the first Czech constellation of satellites in low orbit within 10 years.