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The ESA (European Space Agency) is currently assembling pieces of a satellite that was designed and built by more than 250 students collaborating over the internet.

The SSETI (Student Space Education and Technology Initiative) Express, as it is known, is slated for launch in May next year and is a technology tester for a larger mission – the European Student Earth Orbiter (ESEO), due to hitch a ride on an Ariane 5.

The main SSETI Express casing contains three smaller satellites – also technology testers - built by students at German, Japanese and Norwegian universities. These 10cm cubes will deploy once SSETI is in orbit.

Overall the whole package is so small – 60x60x70cm - it can actually piggy back on a commercial launch - the Cosmos DMC-3 which will blast off from Plestek in Russia. As well as testing the propulsion system for the ESEO satellite, the SSETI Express satellite will return images of the Earth and serve as a transponder for amateur radio users.

The ESEO is a 100 kg plus micro-satellite with multiple instruments, and is due to launch into geostationary transfer orbit in 2007.

"The [ESEO] project is proceeding steadily but slowly, and it was looking as though many of our students would be graduating before seeing their hardware fly," explained Philippe Willekens of the ESA education department. "Accordingly we developed Express as a precursor mission, using several ESEO subsystems that were ready to build and that the university departments responsible were eager to fly."

The students need to have their flight model completed by the end of November, so that their satellite can go for the normal vibration, thermal vacuum and electromagnetic compatibility tests that will demonstrate the space worthiness of the craft.

The completed unit must be in Russia by the end of February 2005 if it is to make its May launch date. ®

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