'Student project' satellite launched from Russia

The first satellite to be designed and built entirely by European students on the internet was successfully launched from a site in northern Russia, paving the way for what its backers hope will be more pioneering student projects in space.

The micro-satellite, named Sseti Express, blasted off on the back of a Russian Cosmos-3M rocket from a cosmodrome in Plessetsk with satellites from China, Germany, Iran, Norway, Japan and Britain sharing the ride.

Nils Harmsen, one of the project's organisers from the University of Stuttgart in Germany, described the launch as a "complete success" and said the satellite had reached its orbiting height of 686km above the Earth without a hitch.

"It's responding and we can start work," he said after the satellite sent its first radio messages back to the European Space Agency's (ESA) control centre in the German city of Darmstadt yesterday.

Sseti Express was designed by more than 200 European students from 10 universities in nine countries under the ESA's Student Space Exploration and Technology Initiative. The satellite was completed in less than two years. Although the students were assisted by the ESA, they relied on the internet as their principal means of exchanging data.

Graham Shirville, who headed the telecommunications side of the project, said the satellite was intended to show the world that students were capable of such a feat. "The prime purpose is to demonstrate that students can design and build a satellite that is well enough constructed to be flown together with other passenger satellites," he said.

Sseti Express is equipped with a camera which will relay images of the Earth back to Darmstadt. It also carries three tiny "cubesats", which will conduct experiments, and a transponder which will relay amateur radio signals. One of the cubesats will test internet data communication in space.

The agency's next student satellite mission is scheduled for 2008. ESA plans to send a student satellite into orbit around the moon by 2012.

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