Assistant Curator Sarah Reeves explains Australia’s first payload to the International Space Station, Cuberider1.
In January 2017 Sydney start-up Cuberider Pty Ltd approached the Museum with an unusual opportunity. A year earlier Cuberider had launched Australia’s first ever payload (cargo) to the International Space Station (ISS) — a Raspberry Pi computer known as Cuberider1, used to run over 100 science experiments designed by Australian high school students. A Raspberry Pi is a credit-card-sized computer, with a series of attached data sensors, capable of uploading and running code to collect data in space. In November 2017, the payload would leave the ISS via one of two methods. It could either be ejected to burn up on re-entry, or it could return safely to Earth by hitching a ride on a SpaceX supply rocket, at considerable cost.
As a small company, Cuberider lacked the resources to cover the costs themselves but were eager to see this important piece of Australian space history returned safely and preserved, rather than destroyed. The Museum agreed 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 conserved and shared with future generations.
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 came up with a radical new way to use space exploration to reignite student interest in science. They proposed to launch a payload to the ISS that would enable school students to collect real scientific data from experiments they had designed. The path to success was littered with obstacles: rocket explosions, navigating Australian space law, and obtaining approval from all 16 countries involved in the ISS. Cuberider overcame all of these, launching on 9 December 2016 and docking at the space station four days later. Cuberider1 was installed on 19 December 2016, becoming Australia’s first ever payload to the ISS.
In 2016, 54 schools and over 1000 students participated in Cuberider’s education program. Through the program, students learn the scientific thinking and computer programming skills needed to successfully design and execute their own experiments. The experiments they conducted were wide-ranging and inventive. From testing the influence of solar flares on the ISS’s orbit, and measuring its expansion and contraction as it passes through the temperature extremes on its 90-minute orbit of Earth, to creating ‘space moisturiser’ for use in the low-humidity environment of the ISS, the experiments demonstrate the capabilities of young people when given the freedom to think outside the box.
Cuberider1 also reflects the rapid changes happening in the space industry right now — from the advent of private space companies, such as SpaceX and Rocket Lab, to the development of small and relatively inexpensive CubeSats (miniature satellites for space research), which are making space exploration available to small organisations and individuals in ways not previously possible. With the success of Cuberider1 and the Federal Government’s 2017 announcement of its intention to form a space agency, Australia seems set to become more involved in space exploration. As a Museum, one of our roles is to document these developments, and Cuberider1 therefore forms an important new addition to the Museum’s growing collection of space technology.
Cuberider1 arrived safely back on Earth in November 2017 and was officially donated to the Museum in January 2018.
Cuberider1 is on display at the Apollo 11 exhibition on level 2 of the Powerhouse Museum from 29 June 2019 to 30 June 2020.