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Central American University visits the Higgs Centre to test Guatemala's first ever CubeSat satellite

(Image Credit: STFC)

The Higgs Centre for Innovation – a ground-breaking new business incubation hub, created by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in partnership with the University of Edinburgh has welcomed a university driving its country’s first ever space mission.

A team of mechanical, mechatronics, electronics and computer science students, professors and engineers from Universidad del valle de Guatemala (UVG) came to the Higgs Centre for Innovation to conduct tests on a CubeSat satellite, called Quetzal-1, to be deployed in space in 2020.

State-of-the-art space-testing facilities at the Higgs have been designed specifically for the needs of business (including high-tech small- to medium-sized enterprises [SMEs] and start-ups), the University community, and research institutions. Users have access to a range of equipment to test small satellites (from micro- and nano- to pico-sats) as well as the components and sub-systems of larger satellites. Here Ing. Victor Hugo Ayerdi Bardales, Director Ingenieria Mecanica e Ingenieria Mecanica Industrial and the team at UVG share with us the Guatemalan mission and what the UVG team thought about the Higgs.

How did the opportunity to build Guatemala’s first ever space mission arise? “The Guatemalan team has been able to develop Quetzal-1 because it won a place on the KiboCUBE program – a joint initiative between the United Nations for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The initiative provides educational or research institutions from developing countries, with United Nations membership, the opportunity to deploy, from the Kibo capsule on the International Space Station, CubeSats which they develop and manufacture.”

What an exciting prospect; who have you worked with? “The space technology sector in Guatemala is in its infancy. This project, to build what will be Guatemala’s first CubeSat (and first space mission!) has been an exciting collaboration, not only between students and professors, across engineering disciplines at UVG but with experts around the Globe too. Astrosat in Scotland, in particular, has been instrumental in helping us get our CubeSat built.”

The experience must have been invaluable for you and for Guatemala? “It has. Not only are we building Guatemala’s first capability in space; the experience has enabled us to develop new skills and knowledge – helping Guatemala to build its science capital in this field.”

When will Quetzal-1 launch? “Our Guatemalan CubeSat will go into space on a SpaceX mission to resupply the ISS; and will be deployed from the kibo capsule. It is expected to be deployed in space in 2020.”

So, you’ve come to the Higgs to test Quetzal-1; how did you hear about us? “It was through our relationship with Astrosat, and with the support of UK Space Agency, that we heard about the Higgs, and so in preparation for mission launch, the UVG came to test Quetzal-1 using the state-of-the-art specialist labs and space testing facilities – tests necessary to meet the requirements set by JAXA.”

What has been your experience at the Higgs? “Coming to Edinburgh and in particular to the Higgs Centre for Innovation, has been a really important milestone, not only for Quetzal-1, but for the development of aerospace technology in Guatemala – because we learnt so much.”

What equipment did you use? “To test ‘flight worthiness’ we used the vibration testing facility. And it didn’t go quite according to plan. Quetzal-1 actually failed the first set of vibration tests.” “Thankfully we had brought spare parts, and so we were able to rebuild the CubeSat; and do diagnostics along the way. Quetzal-1 passed the vibration tests on the second attempt.”

Were those outcomes what you were expecting? “This was really surprising to us. We had expected to experience some troubleshooting with the vacuum testing, but it was the vibration testing which gave us some challenges to overcome.”

“Failing and then passing the space worthiness tests really gave us a sense that we had achieved something – that we had built something that would actually go into space; that it wasn’t just a concept anymore; and that low cost hardware can pass tests and go into space!”

What are your impression of the Higgs? “The facilities at the Higgs Centre are amazing. It was so inspiring to work in such a state-of-the-art facility. And not only that, the Higgs Centre is part of the UK Astronomy technology Centre (UK ATC); where astronomers and engineers build ground-breaking instruments for the world’s biggest telescope. UK ATC sits too on a historical site – the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, with its Victorian observing towers which were built in 1894. There was a great sense of heritage blended with maturity in Scotland’s space sector; that we hope one day could be replicated in Guatemala and Central America.”

Quetzal-1 has now been handed-over to JAXA in Japan.

The UVG team would like to thank the UK Space Agency and Astrosat, who coordinated all the logistics and paid expenses, so the Guatemalan team could come to Edinburgh.

Julian Dines, Head of Innovation, The Higgs Centre for Innovation, says “It’s been a great privilege to support the team from Guatemala in testing what will be the country’s first ever space mission. That the opportunity to be involved came through Scottish ‘new space’ company, Astrosat, is a testament to ongoing collaborative relationships and cross-pollination across the space sector in Scotland. We’re proud to support Astrosat in their work to develop space capability internationally.”

Steve Lee, CEO, Astrosat, says “This was a double honour for us. Firstly to work with Higgs, having watched it be born and grow; which means a lot as an Edinburgh company with long standing links to the team there (including having graduated from the neighbouring observatory myself!) Secondly, to have our colleagues in Guatemala visit and benefit so much as they grow their space sector. We’re wishing the best for the launch and operations and look forward to using the data in our earth observation applications.”

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