Nov 15, 2009

Christos Merkouris

It is widely believed that space exploration is set to experience a revolution due to nanotechnology, and Christos Merkouris joined White Label Space to advise the team on how best to take advantage of the new technologies that are becoming available in this area.

Christos is a Master of Science candidate at the Department of Electronic Engineering at the University of Surrey in the UK, and is also an experienced spacecraft test and verification engineer. In his university research Christos has been investigating the state of the art in nano-spacecraft systems, particularly focusing on the CubeSat standard and Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS). His research also included mission analysis-orbit modeling and system engineering of a CubeSat mission.

CubeSats are 10cm cubes built to a standard set of interfaces and design requirements. This standard has led to the development of a family of spacecraft that are small and simple enough even for university student teams to build and operate their own space mission.

Simple CubeSats can be a cheap way of testing new systems in a real space mission scenario (i.e. "space qualifying"). Examples include telemetry, telecommand and data acquisition (i.e. especially effects of delay and disturbance), ground station design and implementation, formation flying, and attitude determination. Such systems, once tested in CubeSat missions, can be implemented in more advanced space missions with lower risk.

So far CubeSats have flown on a number of different launchers, namely Dnepr, Eurockot, Kosmos 3M, Minatur, PSLV and M-V. To date there have been a total of twenty two successful or partially successful CubeSat missions and twenty failures (14 of them due to launcher failures). Today there are numerous organisations around the world developing CubeSat missions and the number of missions is set to increase rapidly.

In his research, Christos has also been studying plans for future space missions using MEMS. Researchers such as the MEMSat-1 team in China and ISIS in the Netherlands are currently developing designs and experiments to prove that MEMS can dramatically reduce the mass of future satellites. Considering the high costs of launching payloads to space, MEMS and other nano-technologies offer the possibility of dramatically reduced costs for space missions.

It is becoming clear that these micro and nano systems can replace all the subsystems of satellites including central computers, communications, power, propulsion, attitude control and inertia measurement units, as well as payload instruments.

The benefits of such technologies for planetary exploration are obvious. Savings in mass and size will translate directly into smaller spacecraft and propulsion stages, allowing small and cheaper launchers to be used. The White Label Space team is dedicated to proving that exciting space exploration missions, like our Google Lunar X PRIZE mission, are now in reach of the private sector, and Christos' experience will be highly valuable to make this vision a reality.

Further reading on CubeSats:

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