Credit: © 2019 MA Jakob/WINart - Summer School Alpbach FFG/ESA.

Designing a Space Mission in 10 Days - Alpbach Summer School 2019

Christina Bornberg from Austria and Jacob Smith from the UK write about their time at the Alpbach Summer School 2019, located in the stunning Austrian Alps.

This 10-day summer school challenges students to design a scientific space mission, the topic this year being ‘Geophysics from Space using Micro- or Nano-Satellite Constellations’. Sixty science, engineering, and mathematics students from 23 ESA member states, and all the way from Bachelor to PhD level, attended the school. Such missions normally take years to develop but we only had 10 days, so we didn’t expect to get much sleep!

All the participants! © 2019 MA Jakob/WINart - Summer School Alpbach FFG/ESA.

"One does not simply design a space mission in 10 days"

Days 1-3: 9 a.m. - time for lectures

The school started with lots of lectures given by representatives of ESA, DLR, and the Norwegian Space Agency among others, to prepare us for the mission design. From gravity fields and magnetic fields to systems engineering and payload selection, we learned everything. 

On the first day we were put into teams of 15 to start designing our geophysics mission and met our team tutors. They were experts in relevant scientific subjects and in space mission design, and supported us throughout the school.

Day 4: Scientific Requirements Review

Working out scientific requirements. © 2019 MA Jakob/WINart - Summer School Alpbach FFG/ESA.

Our first task was to come up with realistic and worthwhile scientific objectives for our mission. We quickly realised that very little is known about the Earth’s mantle, so whilst other teams were planning on improving the resolution of magnetic field measurements or using gravity field measurements to predict earthquakes, our science team (after much research and debate!) proposed a joint gravity field and magnetic field mission to investigate the composition and dynamics of the Earth’s mantle, and how it affects plate tectonics. 

We presented these objectives to some of the summer school tutors who were interested in our ideas but also gave us lots of things to work on further!

Days 5 & 6: The engineering design begins

After finalising our scientific objectives the science team defined the scientific requirements that would allow the engineers to start designing the satellites. We had to balance scientific objectives and requirements with the realistic constraints of satellite design, mission design, and cost. 

It was also very important for the scientists and engineers to talk to each other to understand each other’s requirements… we started off needing 14,000 CubeSats to achieve the scientific requirements, which is not only expensive but also ridiculous to plan and develop, not to mention the cluttering up of space! After long discussions and compromises we managed to get it down to eight satellites in two orbits - more than the engineers had initially wanted but much more achievable than 14,000 satellites!

Day 7: Preliminary Design Review

    RUBIKS Mission Patch

Armed with a name for our mission - RUBIKS - Reconstruction of Undercrust Behaviour with Interconnected KubeSatellites - and an incredible logo, we had to give a presentation on our ideas for satellite design, payload, and the mission design in terms of orbits and launchers. It was clear after this presentation that a lot more work needed to be done! Normally this would be okay because there are 1 or 2 years between the Preliminary Design Review and the Final Design Review, however we only had 24 hours...

Day 8: Final Design Review

We got straight to work after the PDR to finish the conceptual design of all aspects of the engineering for the mission. This included the payload, propulsion system, attitude determination and control system, on-board computer, electrical power system, thermal control system, telecommunications between the satellites and the ground, orbit design, the structure, the launcher, and cost and risk analysis. We had split these up between the team to work on but were always helping each other out when required.

As with all engineering projects, it helps to make a model. We made a cardboard satellite which showed we needed a 6U CubeSat to fit in all the required sub-systems. Here it is next to our CAD model, often there are differences between expectations and reality...

After our Final Design Review presentation we only had a few changes and additions to make, so we left the school house quite early - about midnight - in preparation for the final day!

Day 9: Midnight Deadline 

Our team at about 23:45 - final touches and proof reading © 2019 MA Jakob/WINart - Summer School Alpbach FFG/ESA.

The last day was spent finalising everything and writing a 10-page report and 1-hour long presentation of the whole RUBIKS mission - science and engineering. The last couple of hours before midnight were incredibly stressful, but in the end we managed to hand in everything by midnight. It remained to be seen if this deadline was the start of “bed time”. We celebrated and tried not to think about the presentation we had to give at 9 a.m. the next morning. 

Celebrating straight after handing in at midnight - what a relief! © 2019 MA Jakob/WINart - Summer School Alpbach FFG/ESA.

Day 10: Team Presentations and Farewell Awards Dinner

On the final day each team gave a high-quality presentation of their mission to the rest of the students, tutors, and a tough jury made up of some of the top minds in space mission design. We celebrated all the hard work with an awards dinner in the evening, where our team won the ‘Most Innovative Mission’ award. 

Life at the Summer School

The steep part of the hike. © 2019 MA Jakob/WINart - Summer School Alpbach FFG/ESA.

We ate together, worked together and did yoga together - everything was very familial and making friends in this atmosphere was quite easy. On day 5 the whole summer school went on a hike on the nearest mountain where we went swimming in a lake and took a ride on an alpine toboggan. The scenery was truly breathtaking!

Besides working nearly 24/7, we took some breaks to clear our minds and usually these breaks came along with the elixir of life - coffee - but of course, the Brits found the tea. We didn’t look into Schrödingers grave which is actually located in Alpbach, but we were more dead than alive when walking into lectures in the mornings of our “holidays”. 

An Incredible Experience

We would definitely recommend applying to future Alpbach Summer Schools, and re-applying if you don’t get selected the first time! Under time constraints you learn how to form an international team and tackle the numerous challenges related to space mission design - it really is a great preparation for a career in space. 

Some prior knowledge helps but if you have a passion for space and a desire to learn you’ll fit right in! Applications for next year will be available here in the future. 

If interested, you can read our team's report and presentation here. ESA have also written an article about the summer school which you can read here.

Christina would like to thank FFG (The Austrian Research Promotion Agency), and Jacob the UK Space Agency, for sponsoring them to attend the summer school.


Jacob Smith

Jacob studies MSc Astronautics and Space Engineering at Cranfield University

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