A team of Massey University engineering students is building software for New Zealand's first spacecraft, which could pave the way for a new generation of satellites monitoring climate change by measuring polar ice thickness and other environmental data.
The satellite, known as KiwiSAT, is being designed and built by a team of volunteers from New Zealand Radio Amateurs.
It will connect with amateur radio stations around the world and will carry out experimental work in small satellite Attitude Determination and Control (ADAC) – a low-cost control system that works through interaction with the earth's magnetic field to position the satellite.
Four fourth-year honours students and a masters student from the School of Engineering and Advanced Technology at the Albany campus have been awarded a $7,500 grant from the New Zealand Association of Radio Transmitters' Radio Science Education Trust to develop the software.
The micro-satellite is the size of a basketball and will be launched from a Russian rocket in the northern hemisphere when the project is finished.
Trustee Peter Norden said the grant – the biggest the trust has awarded in its 13 years – will help advance the project to a "most important stage of development".
The funding will enable the students to continue with practical system design, testing and software development, and the development of the ADAC package to measure the satellite's attitude in relation to the earth's surface and control it relative to the direction of the earth's magnetic field.
KiwiSAT project manager Fred Kennedy said the research was vital to ensuring the satellite can fulfil its dual purpose in space: testing technology for the accurate positioning of a small satellite that could open up possibilities for similar low-cost, low-risk satellites in environmental monitoring, and to expand communications for amateur radio operators for diverse uses.
This project is funded by radio amateurs through personal and club donations, supported by Massey and various corporate sponsors.
Mechatronics lecturer Johan Potgieter, who is supervising the team, says the project is a valuable one for Massey engineering students.
"It shows we have the capability in this country to be involved in new areas we traditionally haven't been seen to have a force in, like satellites and space. We teach our students that engineering involves innovative ways of solving problems, and transferring knowledge to exciting projects like this."