IGOSat: space at students’ fingertips

Initiated since 2012, IGOSat is a nanosatellite project developed within the LabEx UnivEarthS. A scientific as well as an educational project, this small satellite, designed mainly by students, should be launched in 2022. Learning more with Sébastien Durand, IGOSat project manager and systems engineer, and Alexandre Malecot, software engineer on the IGOSat project.

Sébastien Durand and Alexandre Malecot

While space missions provide unique opportunities to expand our scientific knowledge, not only in astronomy but also in the Earth and environmental sciences, the investment in time and cost of such projects does not make them accessible to everyone. At least that was before the advent of nanosatellites.

These small satellites, measuring a few tens of centimeters on each side and weighing a few kilograms, began to appear in the early 2000s. While a typical space mission easily lasts several decades, a nanosatellite project can be completed in a few years and at a much lower cost. While the first university nanosatellite projects were first conducted on the campuses of major American universities, French universities have also embarked on this adventure. This leads us to IGOSat.

The IGOSat project started in 2012 at the Université Paris-Diderot (now Université de Paris), within the framework of the JANUS program launched by CNES, which promotes space activity among students by involving them in the development of “Cubesats”. IGOSat is one of these Cubesats, a specific standard for nanosatellites composed of several modular units of 10x10x10 cm3. IGOSat is what is called a CubeSat 3U, i.e. consisting of three units.

Eventually, IGOSat will embark two payloads in a near-polar orbit at an altitude of about 650km. These two payloads are the two instruments that will accomplish the scientific objective of the mission:

  • a dual-frequency GPS receiver designed to study the electronic content of the ionosphere by descending radio occultation in order to follow solar activity as well as to detect gravity waves, particularly those generated during telluric events;
  • a scintillator and photomultiplier designed to detect electrons and gamma rays at the poles and the South Atlantic magnetic anomaly.

Illustration of the IGOSat nanosatellite in orbit

But in addition to the scientific challenges of the mission, IGOSat is above all an educational project. “In total, more than 300 students have been involved in the design of IGOSat since the beginning,” explains Sébastien Durand, IGOSat project manager and systems engineer. “Most of them were involved in student projects as part of their master’s courses, but also through internships lasting several months. In nearly 10 years, we have received nearly 90 interns. It is thanks to the work and investment of these successive generations of students and interns that the IGOSat project continues to progress.

Recruited by LabEx UnivEarthS in 2019, Sébastien Durand previously graduated from the Master of Space Engineering “Astronomy and Space Tools and Systems” (OSAE) at Paris Observatory, before joining the same institution as a systems engineer on space projects. As IGOSat project manager, Sébastien is in charge of the realization and operations of the nanosatellite and the success of its educational and scientific objectives.

It’s a lot of responsibility,” insists Sébastien. “In addition to the engineering work, there’s also all the project management, especially in supervising our interns, on top of which come a lot of administrative tasks. In short, there’s no time to get bored.”

Fortunately, Sébastien can count on the support of Alexandre Malecot, software engineer on the IGOSat project. After having followed the same OSAE master’s degree as Sébastien, and then having worked in the private sector, Alexandre will join IGOSat in 2019 to follow the development of the nanosatellite flight software, as well as all the on-board software on the satellite and on the ground. However, Alexandre was no stranger to IGOSat, as he was one of the many interns who did his final internship there. “I really enjoyed working on IGOSat during my master’s internship,” says Alexandre. “So when I saw that he was looking for a full-time engineer, I didn’t hesitate.”

Although Sébastien and Alexandre are both engineers, their role is above all to supervise students in the development of IGOSat. “I follow the work of the interns on the software part of IGOSat, while Sébastien is more involved with the students working on the system part,” explains Alexandre Malecot.

We make sure that there is continuity in the project between each generation of students who contribute to IGOSat,” adds Sébastien Durand. “But on a day-to-day basis, it’s really the students who build the satellite, develop the software and the instruments.”

Despite the complications due to the current health crisis, the IGOSat project continues to progress: the last internships were completed last autumn, and recruitment of the next interns for spring 2021 has begun. The year 2021 should mark an important milestone for IGOSat, with the creation of the first complete model of the satellite and its testing in real conditions, in order to prepare for its planned launch in 2022.

It’s extremely motivating for both the students and us to say that we’re getting close to the launch,” concludes Alexandre. “Our job is to design an object for scientific research that will soon go into space. It’s great to be part of such a project.