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New mini-satellite mission to take us to the verge of a space revolution

Danish students are now developing and planning the next student-operated satellite mission in the Danish satellite programme: DISCO. The aim of the programme is to teach the next generation of researchers, who will forge the foundation of a new and revolutionary way of looking at space. The programme could also generate major new industrial ventures in Denmark and abroad, and a new element for Denmark is that everyone can help send the satellite into orbit through a crowd-funding campaign. The programme is anchored at Aarhus University, in close collaboration with several Danish universities and companies.

In this video, the Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen together with AU students explain the background to the DISCO-2 missions. (Video: AU).

How big is a revolution?

If you ask researchers and students at Aarhus University, the answer is 'approximately 10 x 10 x 20 centimetres'. This is the size of the satellite which is planned for launch in 2023, and which is to prove once and for all that so-called CubeSats can do much more than just function as an excellent learning platform for students. The satellite has been dubbed 'DISCO-2'.

The satellite is something of a revolution in itself because its modest size means that it no longer has to cost billions to build, launch and operate a satellite. Whereas, in the past, gigantic organisations such as NASA and ESA have monopolised space exploration, prices have now tumbled to budgets that are more realistic for smaller players such as Danish universities and companies.

"We're on the verge of something approaching a revolution in the way we look at and use space. The small CubeSats have brought space much closer to us all through their affordability and the opportunities they bring for students to develop special technology and mission objectives," says Mads Fredslund Andersen, who is the academic head of the DISCO-2 mission, and who is employed at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University.

Mission with climate focus

Awareness of the enormous possibilities in the new type of satellite has already been found in DISCO-2's predecessor: Delphini-1. As part of their degree programme, AU students were responsible for everything from building the satellite, to planning and executing the actual mission.

"This time, students will again be responsible for developing the mission. DISCO-2 is a collaboration between Aarhus University and the IT University of Copenhagen, and the satellite will be the most ambitious student satellite developed in Denmark to date. Staff and students will be pushing the boundaries of what can be done with such a small satellite, and they’ll exploit and further develop the experience we have reaped from the first satellite," explains Mads Fredslund Andersen.

Students from the two universities have been working on concept development and ideas for the design of the satellite, and during their work they arrived at a 10 x 10 x 20 cm satellite with three cameras. Its orbit will take it over the Poles several times a day, which means it will be able to contribute to climate change studies via collaboration with two research centres at Aarhus University: the Arctic Research Center and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Climate Change. DISCO-2 has been designed to monitor the climate both optically and using infrared equipment, and it can also measure the surface temperature of the sea around Greenland.

"Anthropogenic climate change is becoming increasingly serious as it spreads and strengthens. For this reason, it’s becoming more and more important to be able to obtain data about developments from all over the world quickly and easily. DISCO-2 is perfect for this. As students, this is a unique opportunity to be at the heart of a project in developing the technology and objectives. We’re literally part of the project from the ground to the day, a few years hence, when the mission will end, and we’ll let it burn up in the atmosphere," says physics student Astrid Theil.

Danish-driven revolution

Danish universities were among the first to conduct educational activities based on launching CubeSats. That's why Denmark is among the leading nations in the development and production of CubeSats.

Now, four Danish universities, Aarhus University, Aalborg University, the IT University of Copenhagen and the University of Southern Denmark have come together to start the DanIsh Student Cubesat PrOgramme (DISCO). The programme was launched via a grant from the Danish Industry Foundation of DKK 4.5 million, and the plan is to launch three satellites under the DISCO

programme, each with different collaborative universities and companies, depending on the purpose.

Because if Denmark is to maintain its stronghold, Danish universities will have to continue to use CubeSats in teaching and thereby develop the space engineers and physicists of the future, explains the programme director for the DISCO project Associate Professor Christoffer Karoff from Aarhus University.

"Research-based teaching helps to meet the challenges of the future, and to secure Denmark’s role in a space industry that is already in rapid development all over the world. We don’t want to send people into orbit, but instead we want to let students’ creative strength boost the way we perceive the possibilities. They’ll help devise the missions to generate new knowledge about the technological possibilities in the small satellites and to create the basis for new scientific discoveries using satellites in orbit around the Earth. DISCO will ensure continuity in the launch of the next three missions, and it will help establish a new Danish space venture."

You can help to send DISCO-2 into orbit

DISCO-2 is not only innovative in its scientific and technological significance. It will also be the first of a kind, in that it is possible to contribute to the mission through crowdfunding.

For many years, crowdfunding has been a popular way of generating initial capital for start-up companies and creative projects via services such as Kickstarter. In recent years, crowdfunding has also become more attractive for early career researchers to secure funding for their research and publication work. While it is used in several countries abroad, there are not many Danish examples of the new practice, and DISCO-2 will try to change this, explains the head of mission:

"The project is about educating and strengthening the competences of young research talents and boosting the common methods. Therefore, the idea is to make it possible to donate to the mission and help to make it possible to obtain climate-change data from a dedicated satellite operated by Danish students. Crowdfunding has turned out to be a value-creating tool for early career researchers around the world, and we’re ready to see whether it works in Denmark too," says Mads Fredslund Andersen.

You can support DISCO-2 with contributions of DKK 50 and above, and contributors can earn different benefits depending on the size of their contribution; just as in other crowdfunding projects. See the DISCO-2 website for more about the programme, the team and how you too can join the student team behind the satellite missions. For further information, find the contact persons behind DISCO-2 via this link.

Press contact:
Journalist Rasmus Rørbæk,
Nat Tech Communication
Aarhus University,
Email: rrorbek@au.dk
Tel. no.: +45 20374215