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Learning Satellite Mission Design with CubeSats

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Publié le mercredi 26 février 2020

A highlight of the newly launched Interdisciplinary Space Master (ISM) at the University of Luxembourg is the CubeSat laboratory, where students design and build a satellite mission.

'Once the students complete this laboratory, they will know what a satellite mission is all about. They will know how to design a satellite using modularity, a type of high-level design called system engineering, said Dr Jan Thoemel, who leads the course. 'Within three semesters they will have a comprehensive understanding of satellite missions with a focus on the CubeSat technology.'

The fall of 2019 was the first-ever semester of CubeSat laboratory. The inaugural class of 12 students received topical lectures from academic staff and industry experts in the field of satellite design and operations. The students were then divided into groups to design a complete CubeSat mission, based on knowledge gained from the lectures. Each group focused on a particular aspect of satellite design, such as power system, attitude control, communication and payload.

'It’s a challenge for the students because right from the beginning they need to concurrently address the entire space mission, from its scientific and business objectives to its technical aspects,' said Thoemel.

At the end of the fall semester they presented their designs. 'It’s impressive what they achieved in just a few weeks,' said Thoemel. 'The students not only presented the design of the satellite part they were assigned with but also pointed out the aspects they will focus on in the second semester.'

In the laboratory, the students can practice on a 3U CubeSat prototype supplied by Nano Avionics. The course programme is combined with research taking place at the University of Luxembourg to design a CubeSat mission that uses a measurement technique called GNSS reflectometry. GNSS reflectometry is a passive measurement method that uses reflections of navigation signals from Global Navigation Satellite Systems, such as GPS. The project is meant to result in a CubeSat launch in a few years’ time.

'We are also studying other missions together with our satellite communication research group, to increase efficiency, security, and data volumes handled by CubeSats, to name just a few examples,' said Thoemel.

CubeSat, the 'Raspberry Pi' of Satellites

The ISM CubeSat laboratory focuses on this particular type of satellite because it has become very popular over the last 15 years, as it offers a lot of flexibility. Today CubeSats outnumber any other satellite type in orbit so many have been launched. They are very small compared to satellites designed for a geostationary orbit (GEO), that traditionally have a mass of thousands of kilograms. A CubeSat is defined by its fixed standards: outer dimensions of 10 x 10 x 10 cm (from which it takes its name), 1 kg in mass, 1 L in volume and 1 W in energy output. These highly standardised technical specifications have made it easier, and therefore cheaper, for manufacturers to produce electronic components for them. CubeSats are intended to have a shorter lifecycle than other satellites, between 1-3 years compared to 5-15 years, and to operate in lower orbits.  These two characteristics mean that they can use components from consumer electronics, that are not designed for the very harsh environmental conditions of space. Their shorter turnaround cycles also introduce a high degree of flexibility in the satellite industry, allowing for quick deployment of state-of-the-art equipment. All these aspects contributed to establish CubeSats as the new standard over even smaller-sized satellites.

Another big advantage is their modularity: a CubeSat can be made out of two, three or even more units (U), each customised with different, widely available components – an aspect similar to the well-known Raspberry Pi open-source computer boards. This, combined with overall lower costs of launching and managing those satellites, and the quicker development phases they enable, has strongly contributed to their popular use in commercial space missions, which have boomed over the past three years.

CubeSat: Endless Commercial Applications

New technologies fundamentally change the way we do business. CubeSats, with their high degree of flexibility, fast turnaround cycles and lower costs, started the 'agile era' of the satellite industry. Thanks to their reduced mass, CubeSats can join scheduled launches as secondary payloads, and be deployed even at early development stages to be perfected, later on, something previously unthinkable in this sector.

Commercial applications are manifold and bound to grow even further. In agriculture, CubeSats provide farmers and landowners with granular overviews of very large estates, allowing them to monitor the state of their fields. In meteorology, CubeSats help monitor the state of the atmosphere for more accurate weather reports. In security, CubeSats are currently being employed to check maritime traffic, and detect activities such as illegal fishing. These applications 'would not have constituted business cases 10-15 years ago, because the satellites would have been too expensive,' said Thoemel. “Now that the cost of these systems is low enough, people are able to buy the data. It’s a huge success for this technology.'

In fact, over the last few years, a new business model has emerged: private companies have been commercialising observation data obtained from CubeSat networks (called 'constellations'). For instance, Spire Global, a data and analytics company, uses a constellation of over 80 CubeSats to collect data on maritime and air traffic, as well as on weather, which companies can purchase to improve their logistics. Planet, an Earth-imaging company, uses a 170-CubeSat constellation to capture one image of the entire Earth every day, at a resolution of 3-5 meters, that can be accessed through private subscriptions.

Building the industry of tomorrow

The commercial success of CubeSats has huge implications for the present and future of the NewSpace industry. This is the reason behind their inclusion in the course programme of the ISM, which is aimed at generating a talent pool of highly skilled engineers, entrepreneurs and executives for the sector. They definitely find themselves in the right place to learn all about CubeSat missions as Luxembourg is home to a number of NewSpace companies, and the University recently hosted the 11th European CubeSat Symposium on the Belval campus.

The ISM students have now started their second semester of the laboratory, where they will go further into the details of their CubeSat mission. Later this year, they will have the chance to experiment with an actual CubeSat to test and finalise their project.

Find out more about the Interdisciplinary Space Master