Charles Villmann scholarship laureate Indrek Sünter: We can only imagine how little we know about the Universe

Kairi Janon | 3.11.2017

“Who knows what could be possible if only you chose something exciting and didn’t give up until it was properly done” – this is the mentality that this year’s Charles Villmann scholarship laureate Indrek Sünter wants to inject into others. Sünter himself is the very impersonation of it: he had a key role in the first ESTCube mission and is part of the team that is preparing for the second one. Besides that, he is developing the cameras of the European Student Earth Orbiter (ESEO).

2017 Indrek Sünter

“I was passing the noticeboard on the first floor on the Tähe 4 study building and found a magazine cutout about the ESTCube project,“ Sünter started. It was his second bachelor’s year at University of Tartu, but he had been interested in space and satellites basically since birth. He went to ESTCube meetings, read a quite general book about space systems and joined the team with the least members. About a month later the previous team leader decided to leave and Sünter was left alone in his team.

In the record satellite team

That’s how it became Sünter’s task to develop the main onboard computer for ESTCube-1. Before starting university, Sünter had been doubting between physics and computer systems, but in the end had made up his mind in favour of physics. “It seemed more mysterious and I thought that I could be able to learn computer technology by myself as well,” he explained.

But the ESTCube project was guiding Sünter the other way. Although he could more or less link his bachelor’s thesis with physics, he felt that if he wanted to continue developing the software of the onboard computer in his master’s studies, he would have to switch to computer technology.

It was the second year of his master’s studies when ESTCube-1 was launched in orbit, carrying on board the computer that he had been developing. It became a record satellite in many ways: it was the first (student) satellite of Estonia, the first ever known satellite to deliberately reach the spin rate of 841 deg/s, and the first satellite to test out the concept of an electric solar wind sail.

Sünter has also participated in planning of the interface of the satellite subsystems and writing the operation software.

Still more to write about

Right now Sünter is a junior researcher at Tartu Observatory and a third year PhD student at university. Partly by chance he is back at the physics institute: this is where the work group for space and military technologies is located. “The space is the great unknown – you can only imagine how little we know about the Universe. To find out how the Universe works, we must first develop the technology and build the measuring devices,” Sünter thinks.

Although we have already lost connection with ESTCube-1, the satellite still offers much to write about. Sünter is writing his PhD thesis on the design and characterisation of subsystems and software for the nanosatellite. His supervisor is Mart Noorma. In his thesis he also describes a few of the tests that were run on ESTCube-1, among them the engine test of the electric solar wind sail.

The electric solar wind sail would allow exciting science

Right now work is being done to send ESTCube-2 in orbit. It will be a technology demonstration mission. Sünter hopes that ESTCube-2 will successfully deploy the electric solar wind sail, load it electrostatically and therefore be able to slower the satellite. Until now, no one has been able to do so. „I think that the electric solar wind sail is more of an engineering-technical solution that would allow some exciting science,“ Sünter claimed.

A future plan is to come up with spectral cameras with electric solar wind sails in asteroid mapping purposes. “For that kind of a mission, an electric solar wind sail would be a lot more effective than the classical solar wind sails, rocket and ion engines. It could help make the mission a lot cheaper,” he said.

Cameras as a team job

Sünter is mainly a supervisor in the process of ESTCube-2: for the last two and a half years a lot of his energy has been spent on developing cameras for the European Student Earth Orbiter (ESEO) instead. ESEO is also a small satellite that is being developed for educational purposes. The opportunity to work on that opened largely because of the high-quality photos of the ESTCube-1 cameras that stood out among the community of satellite developers.

ESEO’s primary camera is quite similar for the one of ESTCube-1, but the secondary camera is something completely different. “The secondary camera of ESEO is an intermediate step between a camera for beautiful shots and a scientific instrument,” Sünter described.

Overall, a team of four has been working on the cameras. However, since this summer, Sünter has basically been the only one.

In some ways working on the cameras also means working for ESTCube-2: the camera that Sünter is developing will also be on board of the Estonian nanosatellite. The first difference is in the amount of cameras: there will be two cameras on board of the ESEO, but only the secondary camera on ESTCube-2. The electrical interfaces of the two will also differ. The camera hood of the secondary camera of ESEO will be replaced with a smaller and simpler one on ESTCube-2: ESTCube satellites themselves are much smaller than the ESEO as well.

The sky is not the limit

In a way, the purpose of ESTCube is to bring practical space science closer to people. The ESTCube team visits schools, welcomes children and students at Tõravere and is presented at different events. This week, for example, ESTCube is presented at the Garage48 hackathon.

“Space technology is no rocket science... Okay, it is, but people have preconceptions about it. When it comes to preconceptions, it is amazing how many secondary or high school students manage a lot better than the university ones,” Sünter said. In his opinion a lot of university students have lost their enthusiasm about making something really big happen.

Sünter also thinks that the student satellite project only has a point if there is a next generation that can manage themselves as well. “We try to spread the mindset that the sky is not the limit. Who knows what could be possible if only you chose something exciting and didn’t give up until it was properly done,” Sünter said.

Tartu Observatory scholarships were appointed last week. Besides Sünter, there were two other laureates: Ave Ansper earned the Juhan Ross scholarship and Maarja Kruuse was appointed the Ernst Julius Öpik scholarship.