Sunday, 28 December 2003

Happy Birthday Fedsat

Amidst the somewhat discouraging news - or rather, lack of news - about Beagle II, I was reminded that I missed a very important Birthday.


It went up on December 14, 2002, and since then has done some 5000 orbits and travelled 230 million kilometres. It scored 2 notable Space Firsts, the demonstration of self-healing by FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) of radiation damage, and the first use of Ka-band communications by a microsatellite. Oh yes, it´s also our first satellite in 30 years, one of the most complex satellites of its size ever built, and won an award as one of the top 5 Enginering Achievements in Australia for 2003.

From a CRCSS Press Release:
If everything had gone according to plan, Australia´s FedSat satellite project would have been a stunning engineering achievement. That it succeeded despite the collapse of its foreign prime contractor made the achievement even more remarkable.

Left with little more than an incomplete shell, unassembled pieces and unfinished software, the engineering team from the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems hastily revised their plans. Instead of having the satellite bus (its structural framework of solar cells, power and control systems) completed in Britain, the team relocated to Canberra, taking the pieces with them.

And instead of facing only the difficult enough tasks of integrating the satellite´s four complex payloads with the structure, and testing the completed satellite, the team was now confronted with the need to first complete the platform, while simultaneously dealing with increased project costs and the rapidly-approaching launch deadline.
To call the software "unfinished" is a bit of a misnomer: I think about 5% of the code remained unchanged, large slabs had to be completely re-designed, and even more created from whole cloth. The hardware was in similar shape, and the test instrumentation even worse. And the requirements kept on increasing, we ended up with rather more than 4 experimental payloads. Never mind, it all worked out in the end. At one stage, when things were looking a little dicey about a year before launch, I told the head of Auspace that they would - or rather, that I guaranteed the software we were writing would work, I staked my personal and professional reputation on it. And workled it did, as the electronics and structural teams performed magnificently too. As well as being as fine a bunch of people as I´ve ever worked with, they were, and are, bloody good Engineers.

Another group of similar sorts, also trying to do the fiendishly difficult on a shoe-string has been blessed with less luck than us so far. Here´s hoping that despite the decreasing odds, contact will be established on Mars and we can say that "The Beagle Has Landed". My fingers are firmly crossed anyway, a technique that worked during the Fedsat launch.

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