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Nanosatellite produced by MU-led team detects gamma-ray bursts as first of its type

The findings of the team led by MU researcher Norbert Werner have been published in an online circular of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The GRBAlpha satellite that was launched into space in March 2021 from the Bajkonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is the first CubeSat nanosatellite to detect a cosmic phenomenon that has only been observed by large, much more expensive satellites in the past, thus verifying its functionality. This small satellite built by the team led by Norbert Werner from the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Masaryk University chalked up its first success.

According to Werner, a gamma-ray burst was discovered in the satellite data by Jakub Řípa, who oversees daily data analysis and published this information in the NASA centre’s circular.

“This has certainly put wind in our sails because we have demonstrated that our nanosatellite works; our next goal is to produce a satellite that is three times bigger to detect gamma-ray bursts,” says Norbert Werner. Ideally, the scientists would like to have ten such larger satellites in orbit. “This constellation would observe the entire sky and would be able to localize gamma-ray bursts,” adds Werner.

Communication with the satellite is ensured by the Experimental Satellite Laboratory headed by Miroslav Kasal from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Communication of the Brno Institute of Technology. “We are in communication six times a day – three times at night and three times in the day. We send the satellite commands, telling it what to do and observe, and then we download the data it has collected. We are able to detect gamma-ray bursts after carefully analysing these data,” explains Werner.

Gamma-ray bursts occur when neutron stars collide or when very large, rapidly rotating stars collapse. They provide astrophysicists with the opportunity to study and understand many physical phenomena.

“Thanks to unique observations made in 2017, when researchers detected and at the same time localized gravitational waves and a gamma-ray burst stemming from a collision of two neutron stars and it was therefore possible to aim terrestrial telescopes at this source, scientists discovered that when neutron stars collide, elements heavier than iron, like gold and platinum, are formed,” says Werner, highlighting the importance of monitoring gamma-ray bursts.

The idea of monitoring gamma-ray bursts using small nanosatellites was born five years ago when the Japanese X-ray astronomy satellite Hitomi, a project on which Werner had collaborated for years, was destroyed. Hitomi was in orbit for only 40 days before falling apart due to uncontrolled spinning. The effort and energy put in by many scientists was wasted.

“We were extremely sad about it, and when I was talking with András Pál from the Hungarian astronomy institute, the conversation turned to nanosatellites. They are not so difficult to design, and they are much cheaper to build. We tried coming up with ways to use them, and it occurred to us that these miniature satellites could be used to monitor gamma-ray bursts, which are very short but strong, and we began development work,” said Werner this spring, recalling the beginning of cooperation on developing a GRB (gamma-ray burst, GRBAlpha) detector.

Spacemanic, a Slovak-Czech company based in Brno, and Needronix, also a Slovak-Czech company whose designers already had experience with building the skCube nanosatellite, were involved in this project. An important role was also played by the Faculty of Aeronautics of the Technical University of Košice, the mission’s official operator. As an academic institution it entered the project in an international competition held by GK Launch Services. It was selected as a winner and thus received a 75% discount. Launching the GRBAlpha nanosatellite thus cost only 15,000 dollars.

The team surrounding Norbert Werner and András Pál, consisting of about 10 scientists and designers from Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic who work closely with Japanese researchers, also developed a similar detector for the Czech VZLUSAT-2 satellite. The initial launch date was scheduled for June, but it has been postponed to December. Ideally, the scientists would like to have ten such larger detectors in orbit.