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Published: 18 April 2017  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
International cooperation
Research policySeventh Framework Programme
Space
Countries involved in the project described in the article
Belgium  |  China  |  France  |  Germany  |  Netherlands  |  Russia  |  Switzerland  |  United Kingdom  |  United States
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Mini satellites deploy for big fact-finding mission

Small, student-built satellites have launched from the International Space Station, marking a crucial milestone for an EU-funded project aimed at unlocking the mysteries of a largely unexplored layer of the Earth's atmosphere. The launch of the network will position Europe as a key player in micro-satellite technology.

Image satelite in space

© NASA

Twenty-eight QB50 CubeSats – all no bigger than a shoebox and made from off-the-shelf electronics – are expected to be in orbit by the end of May, with eight more to follow in June 2017. Fully functional despite their size and modest price tag, they are each equipped with one of three sensors that will relay measurements from the mid to lower thermosphere to researchers for about a year each before burning up.

Located at an altitude of 200 km to 400 km, this particular section of the upper atmosphere could hold key clues on how to better determine the re-entry path of spacecraft or debris and the relationship between the atmosphere and the Sun’s rays. But data collection has been a struggle since the area can’t be reached by ground radar or small rockets and regular, costly satellites risk succumbing to the same fate as the CubeSats.

“So of course a constellation of CubeSats is the perfect solution,” QB50 project coordinator Davide Masutti of Belgium’s von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics said at a recent event marking the successful International Space Station (ISS) launch. “Because they’re cheap, they’re also expendable.”

This CubeSat constellation, or network, is set to become the first ever to provide multi-point measurements of this zone, strengthening Europe’s position as a key player in the space technology sector. Data beamed back down to Earth will be centralised at the von Karman Institute.

The successful test launch of two CubeSats into orbit in June 2014 paved the way for this month’s deployment, with the bulk of the mini satellites ferried up to the ISS in a rocket that blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral in April.

Global effort

Since its inception more than six years ago, QB50 has delivered on its bid to foster international cooperation and facilitate access to space for small-scale research operations. More than 300 students and 50 professors across 23 countries and five continents have been involved, with QB50 providing a platform for everything from technological support for CubeSat design to in-orbit demonstrations.

The project sparked much creativity from the next generation of space engineers with all of the CubeSats developed for deployment turning out to be different, said Olivier Chazot, head of the von Karman Institute’s aeronautics and aerospace department.

Students will now be monitoring the signals from their respective CubeSats as they orbit the Earth and measure the density, composition and temperature of the thermosphere.

“A lot of students were just waiting for this moment – to see their satellites in space,” said Masutti of the ISS deployment.

The hope is that QB50 will encourage more young Europeans to pursue space studies, fostering societal innovation going forward.

Project pay-off

QB50 has also been good for business.

“Regarding jobs and industrial growth, the technical developments made within the project have already led to successful industrial and commercial spill-over effects in Europe,” said Florence Béroud, research programme officer at the EU’s Research Executive Agency.

In fact, the industrial return could already be two to three times the EUR 8 million EU investment in QB50, according to a quick estimate from project team members, she added.

Project details

  • Project acronym: QB50
  • Participants: Belgium (Coordinator), France, Germany, Netherlands, UK, Switzerland, Russia, United States, China
  • Project N°: 284427
  • Total costs: € 11 762 045
  • EU contribution: € 7 998 703
  • Duration: November 2011 - October 2017

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