PhD student Talini Pinto Jayawardena developed the TOPCAT project.

University of Bath's pioneering GPS device to be launched into space

TOPCAT, an innovative project from the University of Bath has won a coveted place on the UK Space Agency’s first CubeSat mission.

The pilot CubeSat programme will send a three-unit (10cm x 10cm x 34cm) nanosatellite known as UKube 1 into space to test new technologies and conduct new space research. TOPCAT was one of three entries selected by the UK Space Agency in a competition to invent pioneering devices to be included in UKube 1’s payloads. It will be the first ever GPS device aimed at measuring space weather conditions in the earth’s upper atmosphere.

TOPCAT was the brainchild of a four-man research team comprising Professor Cathryn Mitchell, Dr Robert Watson, Julian Rose and PhD student Talini Pinto Jayawardena who is responsible for developing the project. Jayawardena gained her MEng in space science and technology at the University of Bath last year so is the perfect candidate for heading up the mission.

Why it stands out

“Being part of the TOPCAT project is really exciting,” says Jayawardena. “There are currently a number of ground-based GPS receivers and space-based satellites in use but the novelty of this particular receiver is the position of it. What we are measuring is the ionosphere and plasmasphere above the CubeSat which has never been done before.”

Space weather events and bursts of radiation from the sun that constantly bombard the ionosphere can seriously degrade GPS signals resulting in positioning inaccuracies that are out by tens of metres. Placing the TOPCAT dual frequency receiver at such an altitude will provide a unique viewing angle that will in turn provide upper atmosphere images with massively improved resolution.

“If we can get better accuracy and integrity of signal then we’ll not only be aiding the GPS system as a whole but will also help to improve the monitoring models currently in use,” Jayawardena says.

Tough challenges to face

As UKube 1 is a fast programme, lasting 12 months, and TOPCAT is the first system of its type, Jayawardena’s team will have some pretty tough challenges to face.

“The main challenge is the development time because it is quite a tight schedule,” she explains. “Actual development started in January once we’d been selected and we need to hand in the finished system by August. But as well as building the payload we must also test it vigorously before we can fire it off into space.”

Launch of the UKube 1 is currently scheduled for March 2012. The nanosatellite will launch as an auxiliary passenger on a rocket being sent to the upper atmosphere so the programme schedule is non-negotiable.

Jayawardena who is in the first year of her PhD programme and is aiming for a career in the space sector is undaunted by the fast-track schedule. She and the research team have already planned the next project due to begin immediately after the TOPCAT payload has been delivered.

“Once we’ve finished this our next project will start at the beginning of September. We’re hoping to place a constellation of satellites which will orbit in space to monitor the global ionosphere.”

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