Big international mission for small satellites
Like a string of pearls, 36 mini satellites are currently in orbit collecting data about the largely unexplored layer of the Earths atmosphere - a remarkable achievement of science, technology, and international cooperation.
Updated on 21 March 2018
Three dozen mini satellites, no bigger than a shoebox, are circling our planet, relaying measurements of the lower thermosphere the little-known region of our planets outer atmosphere which plays a vital role in communications and helps shield us from solar radiation.
Despite their size, these QB50 satellites are of no small importance. Known as CubeSats, they are on a ground-breaking mission to collect the most extensive measurements ever taken of the lower thermosphere. In fact, this constellation of mini satellites is the first-ever to beam back down to Earth measurements of this zone.
Coordinated by Belgiums von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics, the EU-funded project QB50, which finished in December 2017, has not only boosted Europes position in the space technology sector, but also demonstrated the importance of international cooperation.
International cooperation is one of the achievements we are most proud of, says QB50 project coordinator Davide Masutti. Our objectives were common goals shared by everyone. This was the main driver. It pulled everyone together.
A global group
QB50 has delivered on its mission objectives to launch a network of CubeSats built by universities all over the world, and to perform first-class science in the largely unexplored lower thermosphere.
The satellites were built to industrial standards by students from universities in 20 countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, UK and US.
We have been able to train future generations of aerospace engineers, which is one of our main achievements, says Masutti. QB50 created a lot of momentum in the community.
An international consortium, QB50 represents a unique collaboration between 50 professors and 300 students from around the world.
Students and researchers from Chinas Harbin Institute of Technology, Nanjing University of Science and Technology and Northwestern Polytechnical University were among the first global groups to take part in the QB50 project. As the Asia coordinator, the Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU) ensured communication between QB50 and China teams.
All of us, together, wrote the first chapter of a long story in space, especially facilitating access to space for all the universities and all the CubeSats, says Masutti. But we know that the way to make it more accessible and to train new students is extra chapters. And I can tell you we wish and we want to write a second chapter. We want QBNext thats how we call it right now.
According to Masutti, the narrative of the second chapter depends on how many join. We are looking at an improved version of QB50 where we want to continue training students and to increase hardware reliability but we also want to have a scientific objective, he explains. This will not only benefit the students, but it will also be good for everybody to believe in something to have a common goal and to have a scientific objective.
A world premier
The project is the first attempt to provide multi-point measurements of the mid-lower thermosphere, located between 200 and 400 km altitude, through a constellation of CubeSats. This area of the thermosphere is the least explored, mainly because it is difficult or risky to reach. It is too high to be reached by ground radar and small rockets and it is too low for satellites.
Orbiting the Earth several times a day, the CubeSats take many measurements of the gaseous molecules and electrical properties of the thermosphere. The data is being centralised by the von Karman Institute, providing researchers information about the relation between the Earths atmosphere and the Sun radiation.
The results generated by the constellation are being used to validate and enhance forecasting models and improve our understanding of the physical processes taking part in the thermosphere.
According to Masutti, the data generated by the constellation of CubeSats is unique and will be used for many years by scientists around the world.
Of course, small satellite means a small amount of data, but because we have a lot of satellites, we can increase the amount of data coming down, he explains.
Following the launch into orbit last year, the positions, data and detailed information about the 36 CubeSats can be found on the QB50 Display, Processing and Archiving Centre.