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Itsy-bitsy Lithuanian satellite on the way for a lengthy space journey

  • 2013-04-03
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

Laurynas Maciulis and Vytenis Buzas.

KLAIPEDA - Lithuania has never launched a satellite into space. Forget that! The small Baltic State cannot even boast its own national airline. But this could soon be turned around with the blast of a brick-size nano-satellite that two young, NASA-encouraged Lithuanian engineers have been working on.

A long nurtured idea came true
“Frankly, we’d long been cherishing the idea before we were encouraged by one of the NASA, (the American National Aeronautics and Space Association), representatives. A couple of years ago, he suggested half-jokingly, half-seriously putting a Lithuanian satellite into space,” remembered Vytenis Buzas and Laurynas Maciulis, graduates of Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU).

The NASA senior officer told the guys he was aware that Latvians and Estonians are on the way to launching their satellites. “How come that Lithuanians, who historically have always been the driving force in the Baltic region, are lagging behind?” the NASA worker quipped. Vytenis and Laurynas were amazed by the NASA facilities and technical capabilities, but the thought of making a big bang in space- in a Lithuanian way- has not left them.

The spunk cooled down after learning they’d have to wait until 2015 for the launch of a 30x30x30-centimeter nano-spacecraft. Laurynas and Vytenis just couldn’t wait too for what would seem to be an eternity. Last year, again sipping coffee at NASA, this time with the head of the Ames Research Center where the two had their post-graduate apprenticeship, the idea again popped up.  “The research center chief was very encouraging, but hinted it could be done cheaper, faster and earlier,” Buzas said.

The take-off is scheduled in the fall but it will come at the expense of the size sticking with an itty-bitty nano-satellite, 10 centimeters in height and equal length and width, and still capable of flying it a half-million kilometers into space. The NASA meetings now seem to the Lithuanians almost ominous. Buzas and Maciulis have already spent a half-year on the project, called “Lituanica SAT-1.”

Assembling works have started
If all goes well, the Lithuanian constructed nano-satellite will be flung into orbit by a private space company serving the International Space Station (ISS) already this fall. That would enroll Lithuania into the 57-member state list of spacecraft launchers.

With the projecting works behind them, Buzas and Maciulis are busy testing the tentative module of the would-be spacecraft. “Frankly, the module won’t be flown into orbit. Pending the results of the tryouts, a real nano-satellite will be made in Lithuania. When it’s ready, the private aeronautics company will lift it to the ISS and then it will be flung into a deeper space by a Japanese-made robot,” said Laurynas.

To tell the truth, the Lithuanian prodigies have not yet scrapped the more expensive and larger QB50 project, which would put two Lithuanian satellites into space in 2015. “That project is kind of different- more European, and organized by the Von Karman Institute. But there are some peculiarities regarding the launch of the institute co-sponsored satellite, so we’d rather stick with the smaller, but a more clear thing,” said Buzas. The space-bound satellite is being assembled in a Lithuanian facility, whose location has not been announced.

To spur the works and get some help, the young men have bolstered the team by inviting several researchers from Vilnius University’s Faculty of Mathematics and Information and the Alma Mater’s Radio Fan Club.
 Now some dozen people make the nucleus of the team, with another 20 always hanging around. And with the buzz on the spacecraft out there, Buzas and Maciulius have attracted the attention of a couple of investors keen to invest in the first-ever Lithuanian cosmic project. “As the team is growing and the project works inch toward the end, we cannot wait to start the production of the spacecraft,” Buzas excitedy said.

A lot at stake
If it were flung out into space successfully, not only Lithuania’s name would make newspaper headlines around the world. “We’ve been seeing that there soon are quite a few providers of satellite components. And provided all goes right, we ponder launching a satellite component production line for the global aeronautics market. Does it sound too good to be true? Well, not for us. As a matter of fact, we see what could be improved in them and perhaps they could be made cheaper,” Buzas noted.

Yet you may hush after finding out the price-tag of the tiny thing. Nearly a half-million USD. It may be a lot for a Lithuanian start-up, but it is a small amount for an aeronautics project.  Still you say the itsy-bitsy brick-size satellite is not worth the money?  “Its technical capabilities will allow lifting into space radio re-translators. Using them, we intend to carry out a first-ever experiment involving Lithuanian satellite navigation – to try out a GPS receiver,” Buzas said.
For the first time in Lithuanian history, the tiny Lithuanian satellite will be able to take snapshots from the cosmos, and for the sake of science, will learn how to transmit information back from space. It will also measure the Earth’s magnetic field directions, dashing at 8 kilometers per hour.

With so much at stake, the guys still need to cough up another 100 thousand dollars for the project’s completion. Although the burden weighs heavily onto their shoulders, Buzas and Maciulis do hope somebody in science or the cosmos-savvy will extend a helping hand.

Sure, the guys could tighten their belts, but in doing so they may risk losing some screws in the spacecraft. “I’d say the Lithuanian public should be held accountable for the project due to its uniqueness. If we could drum up the money, the project would also be everybody’s. No matter how we are going to tackle the financial issue, I’m sure the satellite will take off in the fall,” Buzas and Maciulis remained convinced.