Inside the Collection

Cuberider: Australia’s first payload to the ISS

The Cuberider payload after its return to Earth. MAAS Collection: 2018/2/1. Image: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Almost exactly a year ago, the Museum was approached by Sydney start-up Cuberider with an unusual offer. In December 2016 Cuberider had launched Australia’s first ever payload to the International Space Station (ISS) – a Raspberry Pi computer used to run science experiments designed by high school students around the country. In November 2017 the payload would return to Earth via one of two methods: it could be ejected from the Space Station to burn up on re-entry; or it could be returned safely to the ground by hitching a ride on a SpaceX supply rocket – at considerable cost.

As a small company, Cuberider didn’t have the resources to cover the return costs themselves, but were eager not to see this important piece of Australian Space history be destroyed either. The Museum agreed, and offered to cover the costs of returning the payload to Earth using funds raised by our Annual Appeal, which helps bring important new acquisitions into the collection. In return Cuberider would donate the payload to the Museum, following its arrival back in Sydney, where it could be preserved and shared with future generations.

The International Space Station, where the Cuberider payload lived for 9 months, collecting data for use in student science experiments. Image: NASA.

Cuberider’s story is nothing short of incredible. Founded in 2015 by two undergraduate engineering students, Solange Cunin and Sebastian Chaoui, Cuberider is changing the way school students think about science. Motivated by the declining interest of school students in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, they were inspired to create an education program that would re-excite students about science. After watching the live steaming of a SpaceX rocket launch, Cunin realised that space exploration is a universally inspiring topic, and could be used as a vehicle to promote interest and understanding of STEM (Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering) subjects in school. Thus Cuberider was born.

The path to success was littered with obstacles: firstly Australia is not among the 16 member countries that currently make up the ISS, meaning the mission first had to be signed off by each individual member country. On top of that, as a non-member, Cuberider didn’t have access to the latest ISS plans, and were forced to design to out-of-date specs and simply hope that everything would work when it eventually got to space. Last but not least, because the payload would be launching outside of Australia, Cuberider required an Overseas Launch Certificate (OLC) from the Australian Government, something that was extremely difficult to obtain under the Space Activities Act at the time. This law has since been changed, something that Cuberider played a pivotal role in, opening the door for more small space ventures in Australia.

The Cuberider payload in its case. MAAS Collection: 2018/2/1. Image: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

At last, Cuberider were booked to launch to the Space Station on a SpaceX rocket in December 2016. But with just 3 months to go, a different SpaceX rocket exploded during launch tests, damaging the launch pad and putting the whole Cuberider mission in jeopardy. Thankfully, they were able to switch to a another rocket supplier at the last minute. On 9 December, 2016, Cuberider launched on schedule, via Japanese HTV-6 rocket, docking at the Space Station four days later. The payload was installed on 19 December, 2016, becoming Australia’s first ever payload to the International Space Station.

In total the Cuberider payload spent approximately 9 months aboard the Space Station, during which it collected a month’s worth of data about conditions on board the space station (temperature, pressure, light, movement) which was transmitted back to Earth for use by the students enrolled in the education program. Schools participated via a fully-online education platform, developed by Cuberider, which assists students in developing their own experiments, and teaches the skills in scientific thinking and computer programming required to execute them successfully.

The Cuberider payload, which consists of a single-board Raspberry Pi computer with various data sensors connected. MAAS Collection: 2018/2/1. Image: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

In the first year, 54 schools and over 1000 students participated in the program. The experiments run were wide-ranging and inventive: from testing the influence of solar flares on the station’s orbit to measuring the expansion and contraction of the station as it passes through the temperature extremes on its 90-minute orbit of Earth; from creating ‘space moisturiser’ to reduce health issues suffered by astronauts in the low-humidity environment to synthesising ‘space music’ by combining data from the different sensors using a computer algorithm. In November 2017 Cuberider celebrated the successful completion of their first mission with a showcase of student experiments right here at the Powerhouse. The payload was officially donated to the Museum in January 2018.

Cuberider CEO Solange Cunin at the schools showcase in November 2017, celebrating the successful completion of their first mission. Image: Sarah Reeves, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Cuberider is an incredible story of Australian ingenuity. In addition to inspiring school students to pursue careers in science, they have shown that young people can do great things. And by becoming the first Australian payload on the ISS, they have opened the door for Australia to become further involved in future space programs. With the recent advent of private space companies (like SpaceX and Rocket Lab) and the development of small and relatively inexpensive ‘cubesats’, the nature of space exploration is changing rapidly, and becoming available to small organisations and individuals in a way that would never previously have been possible. And now, with the Government’s 2017 announcement of its intention to form an Australian space agency, not even the sky’s the limit for Australia!

You can read more about the Cuberider payload on our collections website here. MAAS runs education programs in coding (and many other subjects) during term-time and school holidays. The MAAS ThinkerShield makes it fun and easy for kids to get started with coding and can be purchased in store.

Sarah Reeves, Assistant Curator, February 2018

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Assistant Curator Sarah Reeves explains Australia’s first payload to the International Space Station Cuberider1.