TALLINN - Estonia is about to conduct its first space mission after nearly six years of hard work, E-stonia Digital Society reports to LETA. The project has brought together specialists from the academic and the business world; around 100 students and scientists have contributed to the creation of the roughly one-kilogram satellite called ESTCube-1.
Speaking of the first Estonian space project, the fact that the mission control system (MCS) is also made by Estonians has undeservedly been overshadowed. The University of Tartu and the IT company Logica Estonia (now part of CGI, a global provider of information technology and business process services) co-developed new, improved mission control software for ESTCube-1. According to CGI Estonia’s space project manager Andreas Sisask, this decision was made because the software currently in use is obsolete and expensive to use in smaller missions.
CGI has been working in the space field for over thirty years. The company is mostly known for creating ground-based systems, though they have also created on-board software - for example mission control systems, which operators use on a daily basis for satellite observation and steering, orbit prediction and safe communication. As a result of more than two years of cooperation between Estonia and Germany, Estonia now has experts helping Germans on a regular basis in creating operating software for the European Space Agency’s and other clients’ missions.
“For example, Estonians have to produce and be completely responsible for the operating system’s main module for Europe’s largest space program, Galileo,” said Sisask. Based on this experience, it makes quite a lot of sense that CGI decided to take part in Estonia’s first space mission - ESTCube-1. It will also provide CGI with an excellent opportunity to test out “Hummingbird” - a mission control system created by CGI workers mostly as a voluntary project during the past few years. Compared to the European Space Agency’s software generally used for large-scale missions, “Hummingbird” is aimed at lower budget cube satellite projects, just like ESTCube-1. Its main advantage is its simplicity. In addition, the software is open source and web-based.
“We are pleased that ESTCube-1 has given us the opportunity to develop an alternative solution for mission software that is technologically modern, user-friendly and reasonably priced, and that can be continuously used in many other missions,” added Sisask. “Hummingbird” is being used for the ground segment of the ESTCube-1 satellite: for monitoring and controlling the satellite, orbit prediction, monitoring and control of the ground stations and a weather station. ESTCube-1 will be “Hummingbird’s” first mission. This practical experience is vital.
“No-one will easily accept new software without previous mission experience, even though it may actually be of a better quality than the existing systems,” Sisask stressed.
“For the first time the software will be put to use in April at Tartu Observatory’s ESTCube-1 mission control center,” said Urmas Kvell, a PhD student taking part in the project. The web-based solution increases cooperation possibilities between different missions, offering an opportunity to unite their ground stations into one network. “These competences and skills are necessary for the space industry in Europe and worldwide. In the future, the obtained skills and innovative approach can also be used for software solutions in other fields,” Kvell added.
The CGI office in Estonia is already talking about potential cooperation projects with cube satellite builders from Finland, Latvia and Lithuania. “They are all planning to fly their cubes into space soon, and we have been in contact and have offered our software. Their attitude is positive and they understand that there is no point in individually investing into building the same thing,” Sisask said.
What makes the Estonian team’s work on space mission control software development especially valuable is the fact that right now its capabilities are completely unique - there is no real alternative anywhere in the world. “On the day when ESTCube-1 will take off into space, the risks related to the ground-based software not functioning are not really big. If the ground-based system should experience some glitches, generally nothing will go wrong with the satellite, as they are built to be rather independent. Also, it is always possible to fix ground-based software, unlike the software on the satellite,” Sisask said.
In parallel to the space project, Estonia is aiming for full membership in the European Space Agency (ESA). According to the plans, Estonia hopes to obtain member status by the year 2015. In light of this, the ESTCube-1 project helps by creating legitimacy. “The problem with new member states is that their competency in executing space projects is very low when they join ESA. The agency distributes funds between the member states more or less proportionally, but many countries do not really have the expertise in order to use this money for something ESA actually needs,” said Sisask. Estonia has gained this competency, which considerably improves the country’s opportunities to take part in ESA’s procurements.
The cooperation between ESTCube and CGI has provided the team with the experience of developing ground-based space software systems and valuable knowledge of operating a satellite. While initially it was the Estonian team learning from Germany’s experience, the team now has sufficient know-how to bring ideas to the table and even start a project from scratch.
CGI Estonia’s experts have set their sights on the European Union’s program QB50.
“Today we are working on the plan of these fifty satellites using our software,” Sisask revealed. This goes to show that a country does not need to be big in size to be able to contribute to space innovation.