Faculty of Engineering

Taking Over the Universe

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As the University of Malta’s Electronics Systems Engineering Department works on sending the first Maltese satellite into outer space, Dr Ing. Marc Anthony Azzopardi explains the process and the benefits of such an accomplishment.

Dr Ing. Marc Anthony AzzopardiThe frontiers of science and technology are constantly being pushed forward, giving us a better understanding of the world we live in, and better ways of manipulating the elements that make it up. As time goes on, those advancements are taking place more often and at a faster rate than ever before. But where does Malta fit into the great scheme of things?

For anyone who has followed this blog from the beginning, it will come as no surprise when we say that Malta is definitely a player in the world of research and medical innovation. For a country that is a fraction of the size of most European capitals, the potential that is being unlocked is astonishing.

Yet one area that has often been overlooked – most probably because many people assumed we’d have no luck in it – is space and everything related to it, including satellites and space exploration.

But all that is set to change as the University of Malta’s Faculty of Engineering is finally working towards sending the first Maltese satellite to space by 2018!

“The idea came to me while at a conference in Seattle back in 2011,” says Dr Ing. Marc Anthony Azzopardi, a lecturer and researcher within the Electronics Systems Engineering Department of the UoM. “It was there, at the DASC Conference, that I first saw nanosatellites and picosatellites built from little more than a mobile phone motherboard.

“As you can imagine, that is by no means a straight forward thing to do as all components within a satellite need to be able to resist oxidation, intense ionizing radiation, and even severe swings in temperature. In order to ensure that the satellite we’ll be sending can withstand the abnormal (by earthly standards) conditions, we have had to test hundreds of different components under extreme conditions.”

3D Model of UoMSat1 – the University of Malta’s first Pico-Satellite

The hardware will cost just over EUr 30,000 to complete, so a technology demonstrator (aka prototype) will be sent into space to allow Dr Azzopardi and his team to test the basic systems, and hence propose improvements for more ambitious missions.

The final device, which has been nicknamed the ‘UoMBSAT1’, will also carry a payload (a module housed within the satellite but that works independently), which will be monitoring certain characteristics of the earth’s ionosphere. It’s good to note that the payload is being created by Jonathan Camilleri, a PhD student who is currently working in Birmingham under the expert guidance of Prof. Matthew Angling. This Malta‑Birmingham collaboration is pivotal to the success of the satellite, hence the ‘MB’ in the name of the satellite.

“Jonathan’s project is an Impedance Probe, which will test the properties of the top side of the atmosphere, called the ‘ionosphere’, which is an electrically-charged layer. This layer, which protects us from radiation – literally, without it there would be no life on earth – also affects radio waves, meaning it messes with readings when scientists are conducting radio astronomy [the study of celestial objects at radio frequencies], or when trying to do earth observation from satellites using synthetic aperture radar.”

Through the satellite and the Impedance Probe, Dr Azzopardi and the rest of the team will be testing software to measure the ionosphere in real-time, potentially leading towards a reality in which this could be compensated for. Should this be successful, it would allow for scientists the world over to obtain more accurate data, and take clearer pictures of the earth.

Working on this with Dr Azzopardi is Darren Cachia, the first student to apply for a Master’s degree in Astrionic Systems Engineering at the UoM. Darren’s studies are being sponsored by the Endeavour Scholarship Scheme, which are partly funded by the EU, and his job is to design the top system architecture of the satellite along with the sub-system.

“When designing, there are a lot of things you need to keep in mind,” Darren explains. “You have to set requirements for everyone, whether they’re working on the physical parts of the satellite or on the software.”

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An early mock-up demonstrating the typical size of a Pico-Satellite

Darren’s job, in a nutshell, is to work on the on-board computer system for the UoMBSAT1 and its power supply, as well as the attitude control system that will help the team control the way it’s facing – an important task to ensure it functions properly, and continually gets information about the ionosphere.

“The team is ever changing, however, and we have people coming down from Switzerland, Turkey, France and Croatia this summer to help with the various systems,” continues Dr Azzopardi. “At the moment, aside from all the students working on this project, there are 12 academics – and the total number of people working on this will go up to 30 by the summer.”

For this particular satellite, the Electronics Systems Engineering Department is also working closely with the Universita di Sapienza di Roma, which will be launching its seventh collection of satellites this December.


“Once it’s complete, the satellite will be launched from one of the existing spaceports somewhere in the world, most probably the one in Kazakhstan. The satellite, however, is too small to be sent to space by itself, so it will hitchhike a ride there on a larger satellite,” he adds.

Among the many challenges being faced by the UoM in the lead-up to the completion of this satellite, is the fact that, as it stands, it would take the satellite 170 years for it come back to earth. This is mostly due to its size, weight and the velocity it will be travelling at, yet International Space Law states that no satellite should orbit the earth for longer than 25 years.

Even so, Dr Azzopardi and his team are adamant that they want to make this dream a reality, and give Malta a chance to shine even out in the cosmos. Will they succeed? We think so!

Watch the previous Launch of UniSat-6 Nano-Satellite Cluster by GAUSS Srl. in June 2014

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research through the Research Trust (RIDT).






At the Races: UoMRacing

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With a fraction of their international competitors’ budgets, the University of Malta Racing team has proven that dedication and perseverance are key to doing well in any competition. Here we speak to two of the organisation’s executive members to find out their plans for this year’s Formula SAE.

Supporting and investing in work by local researchers is fundamental for our competitiveness, while working towards a better future for our industry, our economy and our livelihood. One such project which we are proud to be supporting, is the University of Malta Racing (UoMRacing), a student organisation with a love for ingenuity in car racing.

2015 UoMRacing team
2015 UoMRacing team

“Our story started in 2012, when a group of friends got talking about car racing,” says Leonard Agius, the vice president of the organisation, which is based at the University of Malta. “Denis, our president, had heard of Formula SAE, which stands for Society of Automotive Engineers, and we were all interested. So we decided to speak to Dr Ing Maurizio Fenech from the Faculty of Engineering, who had taken part in the 2007 edition.”

The rest, as they say, is history; and in September 2014 – only two years after founding UoMRacing – the team placed 23rd out of 80 competitors at the Formula SAE race in Parma, Italy – an incredible feat considering that their €32,000 budget was eclipsed by those of the other teams, which can go up to €500,000 and even €1,000,000.

“The competition was made up of 55 petrol-engine cars and 25 electrical cars, all from different universities in Europe, China, Russia, America and Dubai,” says Matthew Buhagiar, the Secretary General. “Some of these teams are supported by major brands, including Porsche and Redbull, as some of those who take part in this competition go on to have stellar careers both in the automotive industry as well as in Formula racing.”

10995812_411781165663391_546774138949666986_oIn order to take part in this prestigious competition, the team behind this organisation must build a car from scratch, while taking into consideration a number of factors, including whether using lighter materials is worth the expenditure and how heavy the final product will be, among others.

“Notwithstanding our budget, we managed to do well, and we placed fifth in terms of the cost report, sixth in acceleration (even though our car weighed 295kgs as opposed to the 180-200kgs of our competitors), and 23rd overall,” explains Leonard. “Thankfully, however, the cost report helps level the ground for all competitors, and allows teams with less money to build a car with the resources they have.”

The competition is split into different sections, including dynamic events, acceleration, skit pad, autocross, and endurance (1.5hrs of laps) – “We didn’t manage the latter for six laps because of braking,” exclaims Leonard. “If we had, we would have probably ended up in the Top 15!”

The team is now working on this year’s car and, through support by various entities, the budget has increased by €18,000, giving them a total of €50k to work with.

“Before we are able to get anything done, we look for sponsors,” continues Matthew. “We’re lucky to have found several of these, including technical sponsors who help us with the actual construction of the automobile, as well as sponsors who support us in cash.”

Those sponsors include the Ministry for Education and Employment, Transport Malta, the University of Malta, PWC Malta, SKF, Tekmoulds, and Trellborg Sealing Solutions, as well as Playmobil, Contintental Cars, AdPro-Instruments, Farsons Foundation, Würth Malta, RS Components, Alarm Tech, and, of course, RIDT.

“We also organise badger karting events, simulations for Freshers’ Week at University, and have a stand at Science in the10246739_407036806137827_2449376903331096646_n City – all of which raise funds while giving us and our sponsors exposure,” he explains.

This year’s version of the car, which is currently being built at the Faculty of Engineering, will weigh about 70kgs less than last year’s car thanks to the lighter (yet more expensive) materials used in its construction.

“Last year the car cost around €15K, but this year it will cost around €45K,” says Leonard. “So far, we have managed to knock off 30kgs, but we’re hopeful that we’ll manage to get its weight down by 70kgs. The tyres this time round cost about a third of how much the total car cost last year, but it is something we sorely needed. We are also aiming to improve vehicle dynamics (how suspensions and tyres work).”

Once the car is completed, it will be transported to Varano de Melegari in Parma, Italy, where this year’s competition will take place. The cars and races will be judged by some of the top names in the automobile and racing industries, including Dr Andrea Toso, Head of R&D of Dallara Automobili, who took charge of vehicle dynamics for the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini.

“He liked our car last year, in fact he offered us an internship,” says Leonard. “But when we explained to him that we’re still in third year at University, he offered to come to Malta for free and give us a week-long course in vehicle dynamics – which he did! He is now also tutoring a thesis in automotive engineering; and next year he’s coming to do an aerodynamics course for us, too.”

This has been a wonderful experience for all those who have been involved in the project, and, together, they are furthering the fields of automobiles and motor vehicle engineering in Malta.

“More than anything, we believe this competition to be a great showcase for our University, and we’re now looking forward to taking part this September,” Matthew concludes.

What’s even more special about the UoMRacing team is that it is made up of students from various faculties, including engineering, physics, IT, pharmaceutical sciences (because they like cars!) and FEMA (the Faculty of Economics, Management and Accountancy) – it is a true joint venture that is proving to be incredible successful.


You can be part of this fascinating world of research by helping many other researchers achieve their breakthroughs in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).