A throng of 28 miniature satellites designed by EU-funded researchers are winging their way to the International Space Station (ISS). The rocket carrying the satellites was launched in the early hours of 18 April, and is due to dock at the ISS in the coming days. The satellites are expected to be deployed at the end of April or early May, while another launch - containing another 8 satellites - is foreseen for May.
By launching so many small satellites at once, the QB50 project is making accessible to a new range of smaller organisations. It is also making it possible to conduct ground-breaking atmospheric science.
The 28 CubeSats are built from standardised parts in multiples of 10x10x10 cm cubes and aim to open up the playing field to smaller organisations. With a typical budget of €500 000, they are affordable even to a university department. And the standardised CubeSat design means they can be launched in batches for further cost savings.
“The QB50 project is innovating how we access space and do science,” explains Davide Masutti, QB50 project manager at the von Karman Institute (VKI) in Belgium. In the past, space projects were large, costly and took a long time to prepare, he says. “So we invited 50 universities from all over the world to participate in a global effort. We are guiding teams of young engineers to achieve excellent satellite design and then we will launch the satellites for them, facilitating access to space.”
The project consortium has also developed low-cost sensors that will be integrated in each satellite of the ‘constellation’. These will be used to conduct new experiments in the upper atmosphere – surveying electron distribution in the thermosphere at 200-400 km altitude. This is the first ever attempt to provide multi-point measurements of the upper layers of the atmosphere through a constellation of CubeSats.
“Usually satellites monitoring the atmosphere go to higher altitudes to avoid gravity and extend their lifetime,” he explains. But due to concerns about space debris – especially relevant to launching so many CubeSats in one go – the QB50 project will launch satellites into low orbits where they will soon lose altitude due to atmospheric drag and fall back to earth, burning up on re-entry.
However, this limitation has an advantage: “It enables science in a region of the atmosphere that has not been investigated very much in the past,” says Masutti, as orthodox satellites are too expensive to allow them to be lost in this way. This region is also too high to reach with ground radar and small rockets, and too low for standard satellites.
The first phase was completed with the launch of two CubeSats into orbit on 19 June 2014. “With all these key technologies, before we sent them out to the different teams we wanted to see if everything was working,” Masutti explains. The QB50 team has been testing altitude-control systems, sensors and other components in the orbiting satellites.
The project has seen a clear return on investment. “Because QB50 is such a visible project, Europe is increasingly seen as a leader in CubeSat technology – an exploding market at the moment.” Not only is this good for Europe’s image, but it also leads directly to increased orders for Europe’s space technology firms. As applications diversify – VKI is investigating CubeSat use for environmental monitoring or security purposes – this will be of great economic benefit.
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