The QB50 project is about to launch 3D printed plastic satellites into the thermosphere.
It’s part of the most comprehensive study ever produced of the solar flares and storms that take place when the Northern Lights dance across the sky.
To date, 48 universities and institutions have pitched in and will be involved in the study that should give us a much deeper understanding of the thermosphere with the help of 50 separate CubeSat satellites.
The Northern Lights are an incredible show for those on Earth, but each light is the result of a violent episode in the thermosphere that can have far-reaching consequences.
Not all of the satellites will be 3D printed, and they each have specific jobs and parameters to test.
Some will check the thermosphere’s atomic composition; others will measure the density and temperature of particles that can affect radio waves below.
RAMSES (Rapid Manufacture of Space Exposed Structures) has been printed from thermoplastic, which seems brave.
The whole purpose of the satellite is to see how it survives the rigours of space and the particularly unwelcome environment that waits for it in the thermosphere.
Satellites have to be over-engineered at the moment because the cost of transporting them to the ISS and then launching them into the thermosphere is immense.
If a space agency or commercial enterprise took a risk on thermoplastic and it simply burned up, then it could be a severe blow, but if it works, then it could slash the cost of future satellite production.
That means we can potentially produce more satellites and have some them in the atmosphere in each and every study where just one bears the load right now.
The 2kg satellites will orbit and collect date for up to 12 months if they last that long.
We wish them well, especially the plucky, plastic, 3D printed chassis.