Sheffield students aim to revolutionise astrophysics observation
A team of students from the University of Sheffield is developing a low-cost telescope that will be lifted into space by a helium balloon to observe the Sun.
The student-based project, called SunbYte (Sheffield University Nova Balloon Lifted Solar Telescope), is being led by engineering PhD student Yun-Hang Cho with support from Dr Viktor Fedun, an academic from the university’s Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering. At a national level, the project also has academic support and student involvement from Northumbria University, Queen's University Belfast and the University of Hull.
Cho and Fedun first met when they began working together on a research project funded by the Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy. Here they worked on using high-altitude balloons to lift small rockets that could deliver payloads into a sub-orbital trajectory.
As the next step in this work, the SunbYte project is working to develop a low-cost telescope that can be lifted by helium balloons 30-40km above the Earth’s surface. By doing so the telescope avoids distortions produced at higher levels of the atmosphere, producing higher-quality solar imaging than traditional ground-based solar observations at an accessible cost.
“Because of the Earth’s atmosphere, much of the light arriving on the ground is distorted. This makes astronomy more difficult as extensive equipment is needed to try and ‘untangle’ it. This is why many observatories are located in remote regions high above sea level to minimise the amount of atmosphere light needs to travel across,” Cho explained.
“Similarly, space telescopes are even more challenging as dedicated launch vehicles are needed and maintenance or upgrades are near impossible once launched. This means space telescopes mostly remain the domain of national space agencies from developed countries. This project looks to tackle these issues.”
With the typical telescope having a mass of at least 8kg, the team came across a rather large problem when it discovered most balloons on the market can only lift a maximum of 2-3kg.
Then they heard about the REXUS/BEXUS Rocket and Balloon Experiments for University Students programme, created under a bilateral Agency Agreement between the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Swedish National Space Board (SNSB), with the Swedish share of the payload made available to students from other European countries through the collaboration with the European Space Agency (Esa). Each year, two rockets and balloons are launched, carrying up to 20 experiments designed and built by student teams, with a weight limit of between 40 and 100kg.
Having won a spot on an upcoming balloon, the team is now working hard on the telescope’s design. “We’re currently at the preliminary design review stage setting out clear mission objectives, design requirements and developing the initial optical telescope design and stabilisation system,” said Cho.
“We’re using a wide range of materials for our design, the factors affecting this are mostly dimensional tolerance, manufacturing cost, performance under extremely low pressure, and specific temperature conditions. We’re particularly concerned with the low temperatures affecting electronics. At the same time, the Sun’s rays will be focused into the telescope and this will have a large heating effect that could cause overheating.
“The next stage of the project will be to manufacture a prototype that can test our software and hardware together. This will allow us to finalise our design and be more confident of meeting our scientific objectives,” he continued.
“Having our experiment selected for launch has been one of the most exciting opportunities in my life. Not only are we given the chance to revolutionise the astrophysics observation industry, better understanding and monitoring of the Sun will allow us to predict solar storms and provide improved warning systems on solar flares that damage sensitive modern day telecommunication and navigation systems.”
At any one time the team is made up of at least ten students from a range of science and engineering backgrounds, consisting of first-year undergraduates through to final year PhD students. By taking part, they’re given the opportunity to experience an entire space engineering project cycle, apply their technical knowledge in a real-world environment and improve soft skills such as teamwork, leadership, project management and presentation skills.
“SunbYte gives the students a chance to learn though experience,” Cho enthused. “Team members gain a chance to work in an interdisciplinary team on a revolutionary space project and experience the full design process. This will be an invaluable asset for all of us as we move into industry or research,” he noted.
The balloon carrying SunbYte is set to be launched this October from the Esrange Space Centre in northern Sweden. From this point data analysis will begin, with the team comparing its data to that of ground telescopes.
“We believe that, if successful, it will open a new method of solar observation, in particular in the UV spectrum, which is impossible to observe from Earth,” Cho concluded.