Exploring the solar system has never been as attainable a goal as it is today – and thanks to the the Faculty of Science and Melbourne University‘s School of Engineering, it’s about to get even easier.

After liaising with other institutions both abroad and in Australia, research teams are currently laying the foundations for the development of a tiny ‘fast-response infrared telescope’ embedded in a nano-satellite, otherwise known as a CubeSat.

If the satellite is successfully launched by the 2021 target year, it will scour the universe (or at least pockets of space close to Earth) for potentially habitable planets, in the vicinity of common stars such as Red Dwarfs.

Artist’s impression of fast radio burst as a gamma-ray burst counterpart.

The device, which will be known as Skyhopper, will also use infrared technology to examine high-energy gamma radiation, giving us on Earth a chance to observe the afterglows of distant explosions. It’s innovation like this that takes us further than the capabilities of optical (visible-light) telescopes, bringing us closer to understanding how the first stars and galaxies took form.

Dr. Katie Mack, a member of the Skyhopper team, says that a CubeSat is “small enough to be developed by a university, but can carry a lot of sophisticated instrumentation packed into a small satellite, making space accessible on a modest budget.”

Weighing less than 24 kilograms, this nano-satellite will reach a wingspan of over 1 metre after reaching orbit and extending its solar arrays. 

After leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, Skyhopper is set to provide exceptionally sharp, clear images. Dr Michele Trenti (School of Physics) attributes this to the lack of atmospheric matter which otherwise compromise the clarity of the images.

“Earth’s atmosphere contains water molecules and other compounds which can absorb the infrared light coming from space,” he says.

Skyhopper’s rapid response and infrared frequency range will facilitate space exploration on a new level, looking for previously undetected phenomena. Its capability of detecting short time-period changes in its observation targets mean that it will open up new possibilities and gather information that could lead to groundbreaking discoveries in the future.

Learn more about the initiative on the Skyhopper webpage, check out the student-run Melbourne Space Program, or sign up for the Skyhopper newsletter to stay in the loop.