23 February 2024

The students from LiU were given a dream assignment: develop a pressure-resistant device. A device that contains an experiment. And is to be launched into space.

Three people behind an instrument
Thor Balkhed

“There are plenty of challenges and limitations. So many risks to consider. But it’s a very enjoyable task,” says Julia Magnusson Björk.

She is studying mechanical engineering at master’s level with Albert Jonsson, Tove Ekström and Shirkanth Jahyaprakash. They study different specialisations in engineering design, product development and technical design. The space project began in autumn 2023, in collaboration with Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), which operates the Esrange space centre in Kiruna.

Photo credit Thor Balkhed

American students

The students are supervised by staff from SSC, as well as by Anton Wiberg and Micael Derelöv, who are both researchers at LiU in materials and product design.

The project is also a collaboration with the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.
A group of American engineering students in electronics and data therefore came to Sweden to discuss the work with the LiU students. There, they also met representatives from Swedish Space Corporation. And the task began to become clear.

The surprise

“In the course, we were first to look at the design of a parachute for controlled landing of spent rockets from Esrange. But we got a surprise from SSC when we met them: ´Forget everything, you’re going to develop an experiment that we’re going to launch with a rocket´, they said.”

You had to rethink things?
“Yes, totally. And the size of the device is quite limited, so there’s no room for any big experiments.”

The box for the experiment has to be light, durable, fully leak-proof and not larger than 100 x 80 x 35 millimetres. That is about the size of two mobile phones placed on top of each other.

Many calculations

In the limited space (in the box), they were allowed to perform almost any experiment, as long as it utilised three things:

1. No gravity (micro gravity).
2. Radiation different to the Earth’s.
3. Vacuum.

Photo credit Thor Balkhed “The box is drilled from a whole block of aluminium. It’s a bit like carving out butter from a packet. We’ve had to make many calculations, and change our minds several times,” says Shrikanth Jayaprakash. “And we’ve received a lot of help from the workshop technicians at LiU.”

Together with the American students, they have identified a well-known problem in space: what weightlessness does to liquids.

“Everyone has probably seen pictures of astronauts playing with ´bubbles` of liquid. It’s hard to get water flowing as you want it to in space. We want to do a controlled experiment, inside the box, to see how water behaves in weightlessness,” says Albert Jonsson.

Different tasks

Photo credit Thor Balkhed Although none of them are studying space technology, the students have solved many questions using the expertise that exists in the group.

“From LiU, we’re working on the box and the water. The American students are working on the electronics. Among other things, they’ve installed a small camera powered by ordinary lithium batteries in a package that is placed in the box. The idea is that we should be able to film the water in weightlessness.”

The electronics require grounding so that the batteries are not discharged by the pressure during the space flight. The entire construction must withstand both vibration and large temperature changes.

Photo credit Thor Balkhed “It will travel between temperatures of 15 degrees below zero at the Esrange space centre to 70 degrees above in space (due to the friction in the atmosphere), and back again.”

The box has received a surface treatment from the Katrineholm company Bodycote to allow the water to move easily.

“It’s a kind of Teflon surface, which allows the liquid to slide around in the container. We saw a risk that the water would stay in a corner and shape itself based on that. We want to be able to see how the water moves and learn from that,” says Albert Jonsson.

Launch

Time is short. On 22 March, the launch from Esrange is scheduled to take place. The student project has already been checked several times by Swedish Space Corporation, and has passed all those tests. When we meet the students, possibly the most difficult test is still to come: putting the box in a pressure chamber and testing its leakproofness. In late February, they will find out if they have met all the conditions.

Photo credit Thor Balkhed What risks are there?
“Many. But a really challenging detail is whether the contents of the box could expand so that the box explodes in the vacuum in space,” says Julia Magnusson Björk.

How does it feel to be involved in this?
“It’s a good way of learning. Using theory for something practical and thinking through the whole production stage right up to use. This is how I want to work in the future,” says Albert Jonsson, and the others agree.

Photo credit Thor Balkhed

Esrange

Facility for scientific and commercial space activities 40 km east of Kiruna. Activities include launching of sounding rockets and high-altitude balloons, reception of satellite data and control of satellites. It is dominated by international collaboration projects.

Approximately 10 to 20 research rockets are launched annually to altitudes between 100 and 900 km. Esrange has a large impact area (5 600 km2) that enables recovery of equipment. In total, almost 600 sounding rockets and 800 research balloons have been launched.

The purpose of Esrange is primarily scientific investigations of the atmosphere and
ionosphere at high latitude, studies of aurora phenomena, astronomical observations, environmental monitoring and experiments in weightlessness for, among other things, materials research.

The first facilities at Esrange were built in 1966 under the auspices of the then European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), but the operation was taken over in 1972 by the state-owned Swedish Space Corporation (SSC).
Source: Nationalencyklopedin.

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