On the morning of the 21st of November, the Delfi-n3Xt was launched from a base in Yasny, Russia. At 9.47, Mission Control in Delft made its first successful contact with the satellite. For almost five years now, students and staff of TU Delft have been working on the Delfi-n3Xt, the second satellite to be built by a Dutch university. The Delfi-n3Xt was launched into space together with dozens of other satellites by a Russian Dnepr rocket. The satellite was developed in collaboration with the Dutch aerospace industry. The aerospace solutions company ISIS, a successful TU Delft spin-off, controlled the launch from their ground station in Russia.
Delfi-n3Xt is the successor to the first TU Delft satellite, Delfi-C3, which was launched in April, 2008. Although it was designed to last a year, this satellite is still functioning today. The Delfi satellites are only 34cm high and 10cm wide, not much larger than a milk carton. Despite their tiny dimensions, the satellites have much the same functionalities as their bigger brothers.
The Delfi programme, besides providing TU Delft students with a unique engineering experience, is intended to test new aerospace technology and innovative applications in space. The main difference between Delft-n3Xt and its predecessor Delfi-C3 is the active positioning system. While Delfi-C3 had no means of controlling its orientation, Delfi-n3Xt uses a system of sensors and actuators to position itself. This enables the satellite to orient its solar panels towards the sun for optimum energy generation or point an antenna to a ground station for faster data communication, for example.
To this end Delfi-n3Xt uses a micro-propulsion system. This system allows small puffs of nitrogen to escape so that the satellite can perform subtle manoeuvres, similar to a deflating balloon that propels itself, but controlled. This technology could be used in the future to allow small satellites to fly in formation.
The satellite was launched in Russia at 8.10, after which the controllers had to wait until the Delfi-n3Xt came into range of the TU Delft ground station. Because the satellite was to remain only just above the horizon, they did not expect to make contact so soon, but in fact the engineers were able to detect the very first signal to come through. There will be three more contact points during the course of the day.
ISIS, a company established by TU Delft alumni, controlled the launch of Delfi-n3Xt from their ground station in Russia. This spin-off, resulting from the Delfi-C3 project, has grown into a successful aerospace company in a short period of time and now employs more than 40 people. ISIS (Innovative Solutions In Space) provides aerospace services and builds aerospace equipment, including small satellites, also known as nanosatellites. Delfi-n3Xt was just one of fourteen satellites controlled by ISIS and launched from the Dnepr rocket on 21 November.
Delfi-n3Xt is the result of intensive cooperation. The micro-propulsion system was developed by TNO and SystematIC in collaboration with TU Delft and the University of Twente. An improved energy supply system was developed together with SystematIC and Dutch Space. ISIS provided the two transmitters on board Delfi-n3Xt. The satellite can also serve as a communication platform for radio amateurs.
Besides Delfi-n3Xt, two other Dutch nanosatellites also went up with the same rocket: ISIS' Triton-1 and AMSAT-NL's FUNcube-1. Triton-1 is a satellite that will be used by ISIS to trace the movements of ships on the open ocean. FUNcube-1 is a satellite with an educational character, focusing on the promotion of engineering and science to secondary school pupils.
Explore further: NASA's Curiosity Mars rover studies rock-layer contact zone