ESA is increasingly utilising small ‘CubeSat’ nanosatellites. These are employed for the In-Orbit Demonstration (IOD) of miniaturised technologies and for small payload-driven missions, as well as ESA Education activities.
What are CubeSats?
These nanosatellites typically weigh between 1 and 10 kilograms and follow the popular ‘CubeSat’ standard, which defines the outer dimensions of the satellite within multiple cubic units of 10x10x10 cm. For instance, a 3-unit CubeSat has dimensions of 10x10x30 cm and weighs about 3-4 kg. This is typically the minimum size which can accommodate small technology payloads.
Fixing the satellite body dimensions promotes a highly modular, highly integrated system where satellite subsystems are available as ’commercial off the shelf’ products from a number of different suppliers and can be stacked together according to the needs of the mission. Furthermore, the standard dimensions also allows CubeSats to hitch a ride to orbit within a container, which simplifies the accommodation on the launcher and minimises flight safety issues, increasing the number of launch opportunities as well as keeping the launch cost low.
Due to their high degree of modularity and extensive use of commercial off the shelf subsystems, CubeSat projects can be readied for flight on a much more rapid basis compared to traditional satellite schedules, typically within one to two years.
Why is ESA interested in CubeSats?
CubeSats have already proved their worth as educational tools. In addition, they have various promising applications in the ESA context:
- As a driver for drastic miniaturisation of systems, ‘systems-on-chips’, and totally new approach to packaging and integration, multi-functional structures, embedded propulsion
- As an affordable means of demonstrating such technologies, together with novel techniques such as formation flying, close inspection or rendezvous and docking
- As an opportunity to carry out distributed multiple in-situ measurements, such as obtaining simultaneous multi-point observations of the space environment (which might include the thermosphere, ionosphere, magnetosphere or charged particle flux)
- As a means of deploying small payloads – for instance, very compact radio receivers or optical cameras where the potential deficit in performance may be largely compensated by the multitude of satellites involved (e.g. in constellations or swarms)
- As a means of augmenting solar system exploration with – for instance, a stand-alone fleet capable of rendezvous with multiple targets (e.g. near-Earth objects) or a swarm carried by a larger spacecraft and deployed at the destination (e.g. Moon, asteroid/comet, Mars).
Technology in-orbit demonstration CubeSats
Since 2013, ESA has begun a number of CubeSat missions funded under the In-Orbit Demonstration part of the General Support Technology Programme (GSTP). The first IOD projects to fly have been the following:
- GOMX-3 (led by Gomspace, Denmark): a 3-unit CubeSat mission to demonstrate aircraft ADS-B signal reception and geostationary telecommunication satellite spot beam signal quality using an L-band reconfigurable software defined radio payload. A miniaturised high data rate X-band transmitter developed by Syrlinks and funded by the French space agency CNES was flown as a third party payload. The satellite was deployed from the International Space Station on 5 October 2015 and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere after 1 year of successful operations.
- GOMX-4B (led by Gomspace, Denmark): a 6-unit CubeSat mission to demonstrate inter-satellite links and propulsion technologies when flying in tandem with the GOMX-4A (developed by Gomsapce for the Danish Ministry of Defence). The mission carried additional technology payloads: the HyperScout compact hyperspectral imager (Cosine, The Netherlands), a new star tracker (Innovative Solutions in Space, The Netherlands), and the ESA CHIMERA experiment exposing new electronic components to space. The satellites were launched on 2 February 2018 and the mission was completed successfully in December 2018. Gomspace continues to operate the satellite from its Luxembourg facility, gathering data on the long term performance and conducting additional software based experiments.
- QARMAN (led by the Von Karman Institute, Belgium): a 3-unit CubeSat mission to demonstrate re-entry technologies, particularly novel heatshield materials, a new passive aerodynamic drag stabilisation system, and the transmission of telemetry data during re-entry via data relay satellites in low-Earth orbit, launched from the International Space Station in 2020.
- SIMBA (led by the Royal Meteorological Institute Belgium): a 3-unit CubeSat mission to measure the Total Solar Irradiance and Earth Radiation Budget climate variables with a miniaturised radiometer instrument, and demonstrate a new precise pointing system developed by KU Leuven, launched in 2020 on the Vega Small Satellite Mission Service (SSMS) Proof of Concept flight
- Picasso (led by Belgian Institute of Space Aeronomy with VTT Finland and Clyde Space, UK): a 3-unit CubeSat mission to measure Stratospheric Ozone distribution, Mesospheric Temperature profile and Electron density in the ionosphere using a miniaturised multi-spectral imager for limb sounding of solar disk, and a multi-Needle Langmuir Probe, launched in 2020 on the Vega Small Satellite Mission Service (SSMS) Proof of Concept flight.
More are due to follow:
- RadCube (led by C3S with MTA EK in Hungary, Imperial College London in UK, and Astronika in Poland): a 3-unit CubeSat mission to demonstrate miniaturised instrument technologies that measure in-situ the space radiation and magnetic field environment in Low Earth Orbit for space weather monitoring purposes. The platform developed by C3S will also be demonstrated in flight. The project is currently in the system assembly, integration & verification phase and planned to be ready for flight in 2021
- PRETTY (led by RUAG Austria with TU Graz and Seibersdorf Laboratories): a 3-unit CubeSat mission to demonstrate the technique of GNSS Reflectometry at low grazing angles for altimetry (primarily for sea ice detection) using a new software-defined GNSS receiver. Additionally, a miniaturised radiation dosimeter will also be tested in flight. The project is currently in the detailed design phase
- Sunstorm (Led by Finland’s Reaktor Space Lab with its payload coming from a Finnish-UK consortium) this 2-unit CubeSat will demonstrate a highly miniaturized solar X-Ray Flux Monitor (XFM) technology for Space Weather monitoring and forecasting. It is planned to fly in 2021
- GomX-5 (led by GomSpace with payloads from European industry) will demonstrate next generation constellation related technologies for 12-Unit CubeSat platforms, including electric propulsion, high-speed intersatellite links, a high rate X-band downlink transmitter with reflectarray high gain antenna and a high accuracy satnav receiver, planned for launch in 2022
- RACE (led by GomSpace with GMV, Almatech and Micos), the Rendezvous Autonomous Cubesats Experiment, is a breakthrough system demonstrating autonomous rendezvous and docking manoeuvres with two 6-unit CubeSats. Utilising new miniaturised technologies including 6 Degree of Freedom micropropulsion, compact navigation sensors and a micro-docking systems, RACE is planned to fly in 2022
- CubeSpec (led by KU Leuven with Amos and Space Inventor) is a highly innovative mission to demonstrate high spectral spectroscopy from a 6-unit CubeSat, with astroseismology as its first science case, adaptable in turn to other uses such as exoplanet transits. The required arcsecond pointing accuracy will be enabled by a line-of-sight stabilisation technology in a closed loop with its 3-axis pointing system. It is due to launch in 2023
- M-ARGO (led by GomSpace with Politecnico di Milano) is a stand-alone 12-unit CubeSat capable of rendezvous with Near Earth Objects, lowering the cost of entry of deep space missions by an order of magnitude, demonstrating miniaturised European technologies currently including high specific impulsive electric propulsion, an X-Band deep space transponder with reflectarray high gain antenna, high power steerable solar array and a cold gas reaction control system.