5 years ago, Irazu opened the doors of space to Costa Rica
5 years ago, Irazu opened the doors of space to Costa Rica

5 years ago, Irazu opened the doors of space to Costa Rica

On April 2, 2018, a Dragon cargo ship delivered Costa Rica's first satellite to the International Space Station, deployed a few weeks later in space on a mission dedicated to the environment.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on April 2 2018, carrying the Commercial Resupply Service-14 (CRS-14) Dragon cargo ship on a resupply service mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Also provided by SpaceX, Dragon joins the ISS on April 4 and remains docked there until the following May 5. In the cargo bay are 2,647 kilograms of cargo, including four small satellites that will be released using the Nanoracks orbital deployment system in the Japanese Kibo module: RemoveDebris, a European Space Agency minisatellite (100 kg) that is to test a debris removal technique, and three cubesats - from the University of Nairobi in Kenya (1KUNS-PF), Istanbul Technical University in Turkey (Ubakusat), and the Costa Rican Institute of Technology (Irazu).


An ACAE initiative

With the advent of cubesats (cubic nanosatellites)-imagined by U.S. academics allowing students to quickly develop (with existing components) small satellites at limited costs and with standards adopted in the late 1990s-many research centers, including nations with modest capabilities such as Costa Rica, are able to gain access to space.

The Costa Rican space initiative goes back to the Central American Aeronautics and Space Association (ACAE - Asociación Centroamericana de Aeronáutica y del Espacio), founded in 2009. For the founders, ACAE must be " a non-profit organization whose objective is to inspire Central American talent to develop the aerospace field in the region ". To do this, ACAE is multiplying contacts and seeking cooperation. As a demonstration, to show " the ability of the peoples of Central America to develop a space project ", a satellite program called Irazu, initiated as early as 2009, begins its development phase from March 2017 under the leadership of Luis Diego Monge (project director). To carry it out, a partnership is engaged between ACAE, the Costa Rican Institute of Technology (TEC) and Costa Rican companies (CCK, Grupo Purdy Motor, EY, INS Joven, etc.) with the help of private (via Kickstarter) and governmental funds, for a total cost of 500 000 dollars (US).


A satellite for the environmental cause

The scientific program planned for Irazu is defined and carried out by about 15 teacher-researchers and students dealing with the environmental study of Central America, a theme that is close to the heart of Costa Rica, a pioneer nation in the protection of natural environments. Located between two oceanic masses, this small country has an exceptional fauna and flora (6% of the world's biodiversity) which was threatened for a time (in the 1980s). For several years, the governments have been sensitive to the point of making the environmental issue the national showcase. Thus, the law on biodiversity (1998) allows Costa Rica to classify " protected area " about 25 % of its territory, one of the highest percentages on the planet, with the ambition to reach zero carbon emissions by soon.


The characteristics of the Irazu project

The Irazu project, in reference to the volcano of the same name located in the central cordillera of Costa Rica in the heart of the country's main national park, results in a satellite, whose format is a cubesat of 10 centimeters on a side for a total mass of 1 kg. Although modest, the satellite must nevertheless acquire data to better understand the fragile environment of the region, by measuring temperature, humidity or carbon dioxide fixation. Before being integrated into the satellite, the instruments are tested using weather balloons in the stratosphere. Made in six months, the satellite is then sent in October 2017 in Japan to the Kyushu Institute of Technology, which ensures the tests (vibration and thermal) and certification, then it is entrusted to the Japanese space agency (Jaxa), which delivers it to Nasa in charge of the launch through the SpaceX company.


Launch and mission progress

After arriving at the station, the satellite is deployed into space from Kibo on May 11, 2018 (along with two other nanosatellites Ubakusat and 1KUNS-PF), by Japanese astronaut Norisihige Kanai. Once in orbit, it is named " Batsu CS-1 ", meaning hummingbird in Bribri a Chibchane language (and CS for CubeSatellite), following a call for competition made some time before.

Located in an orbit roughly equivalent to that of the ISS (400 km), Batsu operates for six months, communicating the data collected to the San Carlos experimental station and the TEC monitoring station in Cartago. These data allow us to determine the approximate rate of carbon fixation in the forests of Costa Rica, as well as to have information on soil moisture, tree growth and rainfall. Atmospheric drag strongly disrupts the satellite, causing it to gradually drop in altitude until it enters the atmosphere and burns up on March 4, 2020 in the dense layers.


A National Park for Humanity

Based on the success of the Irazu program, which also introduces students to space technologies, ACAE expects to generate vocations and find partnerships to engage in other space missions. In addition, it is also cooperating with Ad Astra Rocket Company, a Costa Rican company created in 2005 (located both at the private university EARTH near Liberia, Costa Rica, and in Webster, Texas), for the development of advanced plasma propulsion technology, whose president is Costa Rican-born American physicist (plasma), engineer (mechanical) and former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz. An experienced astronaut, he flew seven times on the U.S. space shuttles between 1986 and 2002, the record for most trips into space (which he shares with Jerry L. Ross). He also served as an advisor (along with other scientists) for the Irazu project.

Aware of space adventure and the environment, Franklin Chang-Diaz sees them as two major causes for a better future for humanity : " My dream or vision is a future for humanity where we will be completely free to pursue activities outside our planet. The Earth will then become a kind of national park of humanity, a protected area where our children and their children can all come back and know and appreciate the beauty from which their ancestors came ".


Some references

- An online article: "Central American Association for Aeronautics and Space Crowdsourcing First Satellite Project", Caleb Henry, 14 April 2016

- A study : "Irazu: CubeSat, Mission, Architecture and Development,"Marco Gomez Jenkins, Julio César Calvo-Alvarado, Adolfo Chaves Jiménez, and Johan Carvajal-Godinez, paper presented at the 67th International Astronautical Congress, Guadalajara, Mexico City, September 2016.

- The ACAE.


Philippe Varnoteaux is a doctor of history, a specialist in the beginnings of space exploration in France, and the author of a number of reference works

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