Students set to launch space web

Published

Ishbel Begg

Six PHD students from Glasgow University have won the opportunity to see their design for a space web launched into orbit.

After a successful proposal to a panel of experts, the students will construct the web with the aid of a grant from the European Space Agency (ESA).

Made from high performance polymer, an ultra-light, ultra-strong fibre used in a variety of applications including fishing lines, the web will be deployed from a rocket once it has reached orbit.

The team have designed the lightweight space web in the hope of providing a construction platform that does not incur the huge cost of launching heavy materials from Earth.

The web will provide a lightweight platform for miniature robots to use as they help build large structures. These could include satellites to harness the Sun’s energy, or antennae for further exploration of the universe.

The team had to present their proposal to a panel of experts from the ESA, Swedish National Space Board, Swedish Space Corporation and German Aerospace Centre.

Christopher Murray, one of six PhD students involved, told Guardian: “The presentation to the panel was quite nerve-racking but we were confident that we had a technically sound proposal, and we had the people and skills to both build the experiment and achieve the experiment aims.

“It is our proposal that by controlling the deployment of the spinning structure, deployment and stabilisation of the web can be achieved.”

The project is part of an ESA programme of experiments for university students conducted on rockets and balloons. The team will have just one year to prepare the web to go onboard a rocket launched from northern Sweden, but Murray, who specialises in mathematics and physics, is confident of success.

He said: “We are extremely pleased and obviously very excited about the prospect of designing and actually seeing our experiment fly. We have the opportunity of being involved in every stage of this project, which is extremely rewarding.

“If the experiment is successful we would certainly like to develop the system on a larger scale.”

The team will be able to call on support from two leading figures in the field based at the University of Glasgow: Matthew Cartmell, James Watt Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Glasgow and the UK’s leading authority on space tethers; and Dr Max Vasile. The group is also receiving technical support and hardware from Glasgow-based small satellite company Clyde Space.

The space web is due to be construceted and then launched onboard a rocket in March 2010.