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Technology from Seibersdorf in space

04.03.2024

On October 9 in the morning, the small satellite PRETTY was launched into its orbit around 550 kilometers above the earth. On board is a highly accurate radiation measuring instrument from AIT.

This is already the fifth satellite in space to be constructed by Austrian researchers, with Graz University of Technology in the lead: Ten years after the first satellite TUGSAT-1/BRITE-Austria, the satellite PRETTY was launched on board a Vega-C rocket from the spaceport Kourou in French Guyana at 03:36 on October 9. A key instrument on the satellite, namely a radiation meter, was built by Seibersdorf Laboratories, a 100 percent subsidiary of the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology.
Like its predecessors, PRETTY – the acronym stands for "Passive REflecTromeTry and dosimeTrY" – is a "cubesat," a cubic miniature satellite measuring 10x10x34 centimeters and weighing around five kilograms with two fold-out solar panels each measuring 20x30 centimeters. And like its predecessors, it serves scientific purposes: on the one hand, a passive reflectometer (built by Beyond Gravity and Graz University of Technology) performs an accurate measurement of the Earth's surface – e.g., the wave height of the oceans or the height of the glacier ice in grassland, changes in which tell us something about climate events. For this purpose, signals are used that are constantly emitted by navigation satellites. On the other hand, a measuring device called SATDOS, which was developed, built and tested in Seibersdorf, measures the radiation environment (solar storms, cosmic rays) in space. Among other things, these data is important for the reliability and lifetime of satellites. 

Satellites are exposed to a very challenging environment in space. "Space weather events, such as solar storms, have an impact on air traffic, communication and navigation systems, as well as on the power supply on our planet, and can endanger satellites and astronauts in space," said Peter Beck, head of radiation protection, space weather and radiation resistance at Seibersdorf Laboratories. "Therefore, tests regarding radiation resistance of satellite components are essential for the reliability and sustainability of space missions." Seibersdorf Laboratories provide radiation immunity testing as a commercial service to the international space industry - there are only a handful of comparable test facilities in Europe.

Radiation in space

The dosimeter will provide important insights into solar activity and space weather. "SATDOS continuously monitors the dose rate in orbit. The collected data will enable the creation of maps of the Earth's radiation environment and the response to space weather events such as solar storms," explains Christoph Tscherne, project manager for PRETTY at Seibersdorf Laboratories. "Thus, the SATDOS reference dosimetry platform contributes to the sustainability of space missions.", Tscherne ads.
PRETTY, which is now traveling at an altitude of around 550 kilometers at more than 25,000 km/h - is expected to provide valuable data for at least one year. Admittedly, experience with previous nanosatellites shows that they remain functional for much longer. The data will be transmitted to the ground station at Graz University of Technology every 90 minutes. They are evaluated by a European network of researchers. The construction of PRETTY – an investment of 2.5 million euros – was financed by the Ministry of Climate Protection (BMK) via the European Space Agency (ESA).