4 Marzo 2024

Ready for space

A team of UniTrento students was selected by the European Space Agency to participate in the ESA Academy Experiments Programme. A unique experience for the eleven young members of the team who are studying for their degrees and PhDs: they will follow all the phases of an experiment and a space mission, including its return to Earth.

The Sparkle experiment, on board the Space rider spacecraft, will observe geomagnetic storms and collect information on some of the most explosive phenomena of the deep Universe. The University is satisfied for the result achieved: it is another sign of the quality of education in space research

Not many scientists have the chance to follow a space project from the beginning to the end, including its design, launch, return to Earth and data analysis, because space missions often span over decades. But the eleven students of UniTrento participating in the ESA Academy Experiments Programme will have this opportunity.
The UniTrento team is the only Italian team among the seven that have passed the tough selection of the European Space Agency, and will take its project, the particle detector Sparkle, into space. The estimated launch date is by 2025 aboard the Space Rider spacecraft, the return to Earth after at least a couple of months. Before, during and after the mission, the team members will have plenty of time to work side by side with the Esa staff and develop new ideas. In a word, they will have time to ‘learn’. The news that the team of the University of Trento had been selected came in days ago and was received with great enthusiasm at the University and especially in the departments that are directly involved in the project: Physics, which coordinates the project, Industrial Engineering, Mathematics, Information Engineering and Computer Science.
With the ESA Academy Experiments Programme on board the Space Rider spacecraft
The Experiments Programme has been designed by the ESA Academy for university students, and is conducted in close collaboration with the universities of the participating states. The tailor-made programme takes place in parallel with academic study so that the students can benefit from the direct contact with ESA's staff while developing their ideas and projects. To support the research projects of the Academy programme, ESA makes its facilities available across all lines of research: there is a plane for parabolic flight to test microgravity, the ice-cube facility, a box on the international space station where students can test their experiments, and there are facilities dedicated to the applications of robotics in space.
Starting from this year, the programme also offers another opportunity: to place an experiment on board the Space Rider spacecraft, that will gravitate in a low orbit – 400 kilometres from Earth – for at least two months. Space Rider will use the Vega launcher and, at the end of the mission, will return to Earth thus giving the research teams the opportunity to recover the instruments and collect further data. Only two of the seven projects selected by Esa Academy - including Sparkle, the UniTrento project – will travel on board of Space Rider.
"This is the first time that this innovative spacecraft has been made available by ESA for the Academy programme," says Veronica Vilona, aerospace engineer and research manager of the Astro-Particles group at the Tifpa-Trento Institute for Fundamental Physics and Applications, as well as technical point of contact for the students of the team. "Participating in person in the development of all phases of a space mission – from its design, to development, launch, in-orbit measurements and even the return to Earth – is an extraordinary opportunity for researchers. A unique experience. Usually, in fact, students in particular, only see a small part of large projects."
"Being involved in all the phases of the project and in contact with experts is a great experience for these young scientists," says Roberto Iuppa, a professor at the Department of Physics of UniTrento and a physicist at Infn/Tifpa. "Students usually do not get to work with Esa engineers and to use its facilities. It is a good sign that the students from UniTrento are offered this opportunity. It is a recognition of the quality and competitiveness of the project presented by the team. For us, this also means that our University now attracts and trains the students who will be the space scientists of tomorrow. A result that rewards at least ten years of work and of excellent scientific relations between the various institutions engaged at various levels in space research."
UniTrento in orbit: the Sparkle project
The heart of the Sparkle project is a small cube, ten centimetres per side: it is a compact detector for gamma rays and charged particles, designed and built to study the ionosphere in low orbit. The ionosphere is where radio waves bounce from one part of our planet to the other. The project is inspired by the experience of Limadou, the important Italian-Chinese space mission that involves the research team coordinated by Roberto Iuppa (Department of Physics UniTrento and Tifpa). Sparkle will measure the particles of the ionosphere at an altitude of 400 km above Earth. And it will also detect photons, the light that is generated by violent explosive phenomena in the universe called gamma ray bursts.
Sparkle will observe the photons from above and from below, as it will also analyze the gamma radiation of the Earth, which is often associated with lightning. The so-called ‘Terrestrial Gamma Ray Flashes’ are in fact caused by intense electric fields produced above or inside thunderstorms.
The UniTrento team
The team selected by the ESA Academy Experiments Programme consists of PhD students Riccardo Nicolaidis (who is also a team leader), Greta Brianti and Francesco Rossi (Department of Physics), Edoardo Dalla Ricca, Matteo Polo and Matteo Tomasi (Department of Industrial Engineering), Francesco Marzari (National Doctorate in Space Science and Technology), Matteo Framba (Department of Mathematics); and Marcus Vukojevic, Carlotta Giacchetta and Mattias Trettel, who are students of the Master's degree in Artificial Intelligence Systems.
Undergraduates students Mukund Gupta and Martina Panini (Information Engineering and Computer Science), Francesco Sulli (Physics), Michael Fait and Samuele Zurlo (Industrial Engineering) will work with the main team.
The team is supervised by Roberto Iuppa, professor at the Department of Physics of UniTrento and physicist at Tifpa - Trento Institute for Fundamental Physics and Application, and Veronica Vilona, aerospace engineer and research manager of the Astro-Particle group at Physics.
What is special about the ESA Academy Experiment Programme is that it is open to students who are not already into space studies but would like to expand and test their knowledge in projects that have to do with space. This is the case for some of the students of the UniTrento team, which is anyway supported by several organizations including Fondazione Bruno Kessler, the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (primarily through TIFPA - Trento Institute for Fundamental Physics and Applications), the Prom Facility (Polo Meccatronica of Rovereto) and Hub Innovation Trentino. Smart engineering, a private company, also participates as partner, and the Foundation for the enhancement of Trentino research (Fondazione VRT) provided a financial contribution.


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