Tag Archive for: Cubesat

  • DLR is developing distributed and heterogeneous on-board computers for future space missions.
  • Combination of radiation-resistant and commercially available processors that monitor each other and redistribute tasks in the event of an error.
  • Successful experiment with Earth observation data on an ESA test satellite.
  • Focus: space travel, earth observation, technology

Reliable and powerful computers play a central role in space travel: computer systems in satellites, for example, enable demanding earth observation missions. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is developing a new computer architecture that is intended to give the so-called on-board computers (OBC) more power and also enable them to repair themselves. Distributed heterogeneous OBCs are being developed in the ScOSA (Scalable On-Board Computing for Space Avionics) flight experiment project. You have different computing nodes connected as a network.

A general challenge for computer systems in satellites is that cosmic rays can disrupt the computers. “When a radiation particle flies through a memory, it might turn a zero into a one there,” explains project manager Daniel Lüdtke from the DLR Institute for Software Technology in Braunschweig . Ultimately, the system can even fail or deliver incorrect results. Radiation-resistant processors are therefore available for space travel. However, these are very expensive and have little computing power. On the other hand, processors, such as those used for smartphones, are very powerful and also cheaper. However, they are much more susceptible to cosmic radiation. ScOSA brings both processor types together in one system.

Test run on the test platform OPS-SAT in low earth orbit

The software recognizes errors and failures and controls the computer. “Programs running on a faulty processor are automatically transferred to other processors via the network,” says Daniel Lüdtke. Meanwhile, the satellite continues to work. The software then restarts the processor and integrates it back into the system.

An experiment on the satellite has now shown that this works OPS-SAT of the European Space Agency ESA shown. “The 30 x 10 x 10 centimeter small satellite with an experimental computer has been in low-Earth orbit since the end of 2019. OPS-SAT is available to researchers as a full-featured open platform,” explains Dave Evans, ESA’s OPS-SAT Project Manager.

The DLR scientists installed and successfully tested the ScOSA software on OPS-SAT together with ESA. For this purpose, the satellite created earth observation images, processed and evaluated them with artificial intelligence. The satellite then transmits only the usable images to a ground station. “Increasingly higher resolution sensors and complex algorithms require more and more computing power,” Daniel Lüdtke summarizes the requirements for software and hardware. A larger ScOSA system consisting of radiation-resistant and commercially available processors will soon be tested on DLR’s own CubeSat: the small satellite is expected to be launched into orbit at the end of next year.

Development of software for space missions

The Onboard Software Systems Group from the DLR Institute of Software Technology participates in a number of national and international space missions. A central research topic is the development of error-tolerant and so-called resilient software that can react to errors and failures. The ScOSA flight experiment project is a DLR research project in which the Institute for Software Technology , the DLR Institutes for Space Systems and Optical Sensor Systems as well as DLR Space Operations and Astronaut Training are involved.


The Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) mission, carrying the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) system, will debut on May 25 as part of SpaceX’s Transporter-5 rideshare launch. TBIRD will showcase the high-data-rate capabilities of laser communications from a CubeSat in low-Earth orbit. At 200 gigabits per second (Gbps), TBIRD will downlink data at the highest optical rate ever achieved by NASA.

NASA primarily uses radio frequency to communicate with spacecraft, but with sights set on human exploration of the Moon and Mars and the development of enhanced scientific instruments, NASA needs more efficient communications systems to transmit significant amounts of data. With more data, researchers can make profound discoveries. Laser communications substantially increases data transport capabilities, offering higher data rates and more information packed into a single transmission.

“TBIRD is a game changer and will be very important for future human exploration and science missions.” said Andreas Doulaveris, TBIRD’s mission systems engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

With a single seven-minute pass at 200 Gbps, TBIRD will send back terabytes of data and give NASA more insight into the capabilities of laser communications. The addition of laser communications to spacecraft is similar to switching from dial-up to high-speed internet. 

“As future science instruments and imaging systems incorporate the latest technology advancements, they’ll return very large volumes of data on a daily basis,” said Jason Mitchell, Director of the Advanced Communications and Navigation Technology division within NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program. “These missions will need the downlink capabilities that laser communications can provide.”

The TBIRD system, funded by SCaN and built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, is about the size of a tissue box and is integrated into PTD-3, a CubeSat that is the size of two stacked cereal boxes.

The Small Spacecraft Technology program at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the PTD mission series. The PTD series leverages a common commercial spacecraft to provide a robust platform for effective testing of technologies with minimal redesign in between launches.

“Small spacecraft continue to prove themselves vital building blocks for larger, more complicated missions,” said Roger Hunter, program manager for Small Spacecraft Technology at Ames. “We are pushing the envelope by increasing the pace of subsystem technology demonstrations through the innovations of our industry partners.”

Historically, most new spacecraft missions have required custom spacecraft designs based on the requirements of their payloads. This step is as costly and complex as redesigning a car every time a person needs to travel. Each PTD mission uses the same spacecraft bus and avionics platform designs with the goal of increasing efficiency and reducing the amount of time required for mission planning and design.

Terran Orbital of Irvine, California, provides the spacecraft, integrates the payload, and operates PTD missions. This approach allows the PTD series to rapidly and affordably demonstrate new subsystem technologies for increasing small spacecraft capabilities.

In addition to being on a standardized commercial spacecraft, TBIRD was also built from existing commercial, telecommunications hardware products that were modified for the extreme environment of space. Leveraging existing components increases efficiency and creates cost savings.

In the course of the mission, PTD-3 will demonstrate highly stable body pointing, meaning the spacecraft can be precisely directed toward the ground station to facilitate TBIRD’s downlink demonstration. TBIRD’s streamlined design does not contain any moving mechanisms, so the spacecraft’s pointing ability enables the laser communications telescope’s connection from space to ground. TBIRD’s ground station is in Table Mountain, California, and is managed by NASA’s Jet Proplusion Laboratory in Southern California.

During TBIRD’s six-month operations, NASA and its partners will gather as much information as possible about laser communications functionality on small satellites. PTD-3 will launch as soon as May 25, 2022, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on SpaceX’s Transporter-5 rideshare mission, which will use a Falcon 9 rocket to launch multiple CubeSats.

Together, PTD-3 and TBIRD have the capacity to help NASA make giant leaps in the advancement of space technology for laser communications and the overall utility of small spacecraft to support exploration and science goals.

A second, separate technology demonstration supported by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program will also be aboard the Transporter-5 launch: the CubeSat Proximity Operations Demonstration, which will demonstrate rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking using two 3-unit CubeSats.

Small satellites have opened exciting new ways to explore our planet and beyond

Small satellites have opened exciting new ways to explore our planet and beyond. This month, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft made the first fully-private, crewed flight to the International Space Station. The going price for a seat is US$55 million. The ticket comes with an eight-day stay on the space station, including room and board—and unrivaled views.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin offer cheaper alternatives, which will fly you to the edge of space for a mere US$250,000–500,000. But the flights only last between ten and 15 minutes, barely enough time to enjoy an in-flight snack.

But if you’re happy to keep your feet on the ground, things start to look more affordable. Over the past 20 years, advances in tiny satellite technology have brought Earth orbit within reach for small countries, private companies, university researchers, and even do-it-yourself hobbyists.

Science in space

We are scientists who study our planet and the universe beyond. Our research stretches to space in search of answers to fundamental questions about how our ocean is changing in a warming world, or to study the supermassive black holes beating in the hearts of distant galaxies.

The cost of all that research can be, well, astronomical. The James Webb Space Telescope, which launched in December 2021 and will search for the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe, had a final price tag of US$10 billion after many delays and cost overruns.

The price tag for the International Space Station, which has hosted almost 3,000 scientific experiments over 20 years, ran to US$150 billion, with another US$4 billion each year to keep the lights on.

Even weather satellites, which form the backbone of our space-based observing infrastructure and provide essential measurements for weather forecasting and natural disaster monitoring, cost up to US$400 million each to build and launch.

Budgets like these are only available to governments and national space agencies—or a very select club of space-loving billionaires.

Space for everyone

More affordable options are now democratizing access to space. So-called nanosatellites, with a payload of less than 10kg including fuel, can be launched individually or in “swarms.”

Since 1998, more than 3,400 nanosatellite missions have been launched and are beaming back data used for disaster response, maritime traffic, crop monitoring, educational applications and more.

A key innovation in the small satellite revolution is the standardization of their shape and size, so they can be launched in large numbers on a single rocket.

CubeSats are a widely used format, 10cm along each side, which can be built with commercial off-the-shelf electronic components. They were developed in 1999 by two professors in California, Jordi Puig-Suari and Bob Twiggs, who wanted graduate students to get experience designing, building and operating their own spacecraft.

Twiggs says the shape and size were inspired by Beanie Babies, a kind of collectable stuffed toy that came in a 10cm cubic display case.

Commercial launch providers like SpaceX in California and Rocket Lab in New Zealand offer “rideshare” missions to split the cost of launch across dozens of small satellites. You can now build, test, launch and receive data from your own CubeSat for less than US$200,000.

The universe in the palm of your hand

One project we are involved in uses CubeSats and machine learning techniques to monitor Antarctic sea ice from space. Sea ice is a crucial component of the climate system and improved measurements will help us better understand the impact of climate change in Antarctica.

Sponsored by the UK-Australia Space Bridge program, the project is a collaboration between universities and Antarctic research institutes in both countries. Naturally, we called the project IceCube.

Small satellites are starting to explore beyond our planet, too. In 2018, two nanosatellites accompanied the NASA Insight mission to Mars to provide real-time communication with the lander during its decent. In May 2022, Rocket Lab will launch the first CubeSat to the Moon as a precursor to NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon by 2024.

Tiny satellites are changing the way we explore our planet and beyond.

Tiny spacecraft have even been proposed for a voyage to another star. The Breakthrough Starshot project wants to launch a fleet of 1,000 spacecraft each centimeters in size to the Alpha Centauri star system, 4.37 light-years away. Propelled by ground-based lasers, the spacecraft would “sail” across interstellar space for 20 or 30 years and beam back images of the Earth-like exoplanet Proxima Centauri b.

Small but brilliant

With advances in miniaturization, satellites are getting ever smaller.

“Picosatellites,” the size of a can of soft drink, and “femtosatellites,” no bigger than a computer chip, are putting space within reach of keen amateurs. Some can be assembled and launched for as little as a few hundred dollars.

A Finnish company is experimenting with a more sustainably built CubeSat made of wood. And new, smart satellites, carrying computer chips capable of artificial intelligence, can decide what information to beam back to Earth instead of sending everything, which dramatically reduces the cost of phoning home. Getting to space doesn’t have to cost the Earth after all.

Tiny satellites (CubeSats) can provide useful help in detecting harmful gases from space

Tiny satellites (Cubesat) come into play with an enormous assistance when it comes to monitoring gases of Earth’s atmosphere which is mainly of nitrogen and oxygen, but dilute trace gases, both from natural sources and human activities, also play an important role in the environment, climate and human health. These gases include over 50 billion tons of greenhouse gases the world collectively emits into the atmosphere per annum, including CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and others.

Also many other trace gases are significant, such as nitrogen dioxide, which gives urban smog its familiar brown color; tropospheric ozone, which causes many of smog’s negative health impacts; and sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. These are largely produced by human activity, power plants and fossil fuel-based vehicles, but volcanoes and agricultural activities are other sources.

A key piece of successful pollution prevention strategies is identifying sources of those pollutant trace gases and understanding their chemical reactions within the atmosphere as they move downwind. A long-sought-after goal in this area has been to identify sources from space. While some existing satellites can monitor these gases on a coarse regional scale, none have the spatial resolution to identify crucial finer-scale details, like pollutant chemistry within cities, or the early sulfur dioxide emissions from awakening volcanoes. 

Furthermore, satellite instruments capable of measuring trace gases have traditionally been large, heavy and power hungry, requiring large satellite hosts that are expensive to develop and launch. This makes deploying a high-resolution, trace-gas monitoring capability using traditional technology a really expensive proposition.

New technology developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory may provide an answer to that problem. The NanoSat Atmospheric Chemistry Hyperspectral Observation System, or NACHOS, is the first-ever tiny satellite, cubesat-based hyperspectral imaging system which will compete with traditional large-satellite instruments in chemical detection applications. Hyperspectral imaging is conceptually similar to color imaging, except that instead of each pixel containing just the three familiar red, green and blue channels that mimic human vision, each pixel contains many of wavelength bands, analyzing the light in great detail in order to identify the unique spectral fingerprint of every gas of interest. 

The system uses spherical mirrors that are easy to manufacture, have high optical throughput (allowing a lot of light for maximum sensitivity) and can fit on a satellite that is roughly the size of a loaf of bread. Its high spatial resolution allows researchers to see gases not at a regional scale, but at the neighborhood scale, and would even see emissions from individual power plants from its low-Earth orbit viewpoint over 300 miles (480 kilometers) up.

Tiny satellites (Cubesat) can be used in a variety of scientific applications, including monitoring tropospheric ozone (one of the most health-damaging components of urban smog), detecting formaldehyde from wildfires and identifying and distinguishing between scattering and absorbing aerosols in the atmosphere, a crucial factor in understanding climate change. 

In addition to pollution monitoring, these powerful imagers captured by those Tiny satellites (Cubesat) can improve public safety. The high-resolution cameras can detect low levels of volcanic degassing and help provide insight into when a volcano might erupt.

The first NACHOS cubesat was launched on Feb. 19 aboard the Northrop-Grumman NG-17 Cygnus resupply vehicle, which is now docked at the International Space Station. In the first tests, which will commence later this year after Cygnus undocks and deploys NACHOS to its final orbit, the research team will be looking at chemical emissions from representative sites, like coal-fired Four Corners and San Juan Power Stations in New Mexico, the Los Angeles Basin, Mexico City and Popocatépetl, the nearby active volcano that looms over that city. The data collected from this project will help to better understand pollution in these regions, improve air quality predictions and provide valuable scientific data to volcanologists.

While hyperspectral imaging is a powerful technique, it produces vast amounts of data that can take hours to downlink in raw form. So, another crucial goal of these tests is to assess NACHOS’ unique onboard image-processing capability, which will drastically shorten the time it takes to downlink.  NACHOS uses newly developed, computationally efficient algorithms that can rapidly extract gas signatures from massive hyperspectral datasets, taking just minutes to do so even on the cubesat’s tiny computer. When combined into a constellation of other cubesats, these imagers could provide atmospheric monitoring with both high spatial resolution and near-continuous observation of key areas.  A second NACHOS tiny satellites (Cubesat) is scheduled to launch this summer. Potentially, these constellations could use an inter-satellite tipping and cueing scheme, in which one satellite detects an irregular event, then signals other satellites with different capabilities to identify the cause. Even more detailed observations are planned, during which the two cubesats are going to be joined by ground-based versions of the NACHOS hyperspectral instrument in simultaneous observations to supply detailed 3D maps of pollutant gas plumes. These inexpensive satellites and the capability to provide real-time data could change the way researchers approach atmospheric monitoring — and help combat global climate change in the process.