Rising star in astronomy: Ciara McGrath

CubeSat innovator
By | Published: December 12, 2022
Ross Beesley

CubeSats are small satellites, usually no larger than a shoebox and intended to operate in low-Earth orbit. But Ciara McGrath, 31, and her team at the University of Manchester, U.K., are designing CubeSats that could travel to more distant destinations.

SURROUND, a collaboration with the European Space Agency and the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, could be one of the most ambitious CubeSat missions ever. It will place a constellation of six crafts into orbit around the Sun, including at Lagrange points 900,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth, and farther. This fleet will be able to identify solar storms, track them in three dimensions as they traverse the inner solar system, and provide early warning if one such storm is headed for Earth.

It’s McGrath’s job to figure out how to get the tiny satellites in place. So far, only a few CubeSats have ventured beyond the confines of Earth orbit, hitching a ride on much larger rocket boosters to Mars and the Moon. But McGrath is looking at novel, more efficient systems that CubeSats could use to propel themselves to their destinations, like solar sails and electric propulsion.

It’s the type of challenge that she relishes. “Before going to university, I thought I would become a scientist,” says McGrath. “Last minute, my dad convinced me to go into engineering because ‘[engineers] are the ones that solve problems.’ ” She believes he was right.

SURROUND has become a point of pride for McGrath. Not only is she overseeing the engineers in the University of Manchester’s Space Systems Research Group, she also aims to reduce the environmental impact of satellites. CubeSats are cheaper than larger satellites and require less energy to produce. They can also fall out of orbit and burn up quickly, rather than contributing to the increasing space junk problem.

“Operating in space is changing quite significantly,” says McGrath. “We are doing research to balance the good and bad.”

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