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Remote Sensing with CubeSats

Matthew Simmons

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University

Dr. James Peters



The first artificial satellite was launched October 4, 1957.

Sputnik 1 was a far cry from the high tech satellite systems

that orbit the Earth today. In the fifty years since Sputnik was

launched satellite technology has changed drastically. Now

thanks to advances in microcomputers and the introduction of a

standardized form factor, amateur satellite operators,

universities, and clubs can design and launch their own

satellites. The CubeSat architecture offers an easy way for

small groups to build flight ready satellites. These

picosatellites are only 10cm x 10cm x 10cm with a launch weight

of 1kg yet in many cases they pack powerful payloads useful in

many different remote sensing applications. This paper will

examine possible remote sensing payloads that have and can be

deployed using the CubeSat platform.



Everyday thousands of satellites orbit above our head. Many

of the conveniences that we enjoy on a day-to-day basis are

products of these unseen devices, but while they may be unseen

they are certainly not unimportant. Satellites relay much of the

information that we use every day; weather data, inter-

continental phone conversations, internet connections, and most

commonly television signals. Satellites do much of their work

keeping watch on what other countries are doing and providing

vital remote intelligence data acquisition. In the

transportation industry alone the GPS system has provided a

massive reduction in costs, allowing ocean-faring ships to keep

straight courses and reduce the amount of course corrections

thereby reducing the course over ground and saving thousands of

pounds of fuel. Satellites have become so commonplace that much

of the population of the world does not care how the technology

works—just that it works—thus they have lost much of their

luster over the years. Only a few years ago the launch of a

satellite terrified the nation and put two superpowers on an out

of this world race.

It has been almost fifty years since the USSR launched

Sputnik 1 (Sputnik 1, 2007, ¶1). The satellite’s launch sparked

a competition of wits between Russia and the United States and

overnight the Space Race was ignited. Sputnik 1 carried only a


radio transmitter, and a simple internal thermometer (Sputnik 1,

¶1). The satellite was designed to study the density of

atmospheric layers at high altitude. Sputnik 1 was also designed

to detect if meteoroid impacts occurred. This was done by

filling the internal space of the craft with nitrogen and using

the internal thermometer (Sputnik 1, ¶1). If a meteoroid struck

the craft a change in temperature would be evident and would be

relayed back to Earth. While this system was rudimentary it

still served as a milestone in both satellite operations and

remote sensing. Remote sensing has always been intimate with

satellite operations because we are remotely communications and

gathering state information with a device that we are not in

direct physical contact with.

While satellite launches and use may be considered part of

the day-to-day norm the cost of launching a satellite has not

come down over the years. In fact many associated satellite

launch costs have risen. There is an ongoing effort to reduce

costs and design launch vehicles that can carry larger payloads

into space with less fuel and a higher margin of success.

However, satellite operations remain that of the scientific,

government, and private industry worlds, with costs too high for

amateur builders and academic projects to consider feasible. A

new project aims to solve this problem by designing a


standardized platform for small satellites that can be launched

as secondary payloads on rockets assigned to larger projects.

The CubeSat Project was created as a joint effort of

California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University

(Brooks, n.d., ¶1). The goal of the project is to design a

platform for academic institutions to launch low cost satellites

(Brooks, ¶2). Both universities believe that by creating a

standardized form factor for small satellites they could benefit

students, home enthusiasts, and private industry. Having hands

on access to design, construct, launch, and monitor an actual

satellite gives students a level of unprecedented real world

experience. No longer is satellite theory something that is just

taught in a classroom. Both college and high school students

around the world are now able to conceptualize and build their

own satellite systems.

Currently over 100 universities and high schools are signed

up as part of the CubeSat Program (Swenson, n.d., ¶8). A project

that started in 1999 as a way to reduce the cost of small

research satellite construction in the academic environments has

grown into an international movement with contributions coming

from both the academic community and that of the

commercial/industrial community.

CubeSat Design and Specifications

CubeSats are surprisingly small, only measuring 10x10x10cm,

the volume of one liter (see Figure 1 on the next page) (CubeSat

Design Specification, 2005, p.1). The weight limit for the

device is 1 kilogram per unit (CubeSat Design Specification,

p.2). The small form factor reduces the launch cost as the

satellites are usually carried as a second payload. CubeSats

typically rely on amateur radio for communications although some

satellites have been equipped with commercial radio system

(CubeSat Design Specification, p.2). The advantage of using an

amateur radio setup is that FCC licenses are not required for

the frequencies thereby further reducing the cost associated

with the construction. Average construction, testing, and launch

cost for a CubeSat is 65,000 to 85,000 dollars (CubeSat, 2007,


Data Handling and Control

Most CubeSats use PC/104 architecture for the main computer

system (CubeSat Kit – FAQ, n.d., ¶1). A kit available from

CubeSatkit.com includes a microcontroller with software for the

flight components of the satellite (CubeSat Kit Brochure, 2007,

p.2). These systems have multiple general purpose in and outs

(GPIO) to connect payload systems to the processor as well as

radio modems. The kit available includes most of the programming

hardware, software, and development boards required to get a


CubeSat system up and running (CubeSat Kit Brochure, p.1). The

kit even includes the basic frame for the satellite. Additional

components include the payload and the selection of a

communication subsystem.

Figure 1: CubeSat design specifications (CubeSat Design

Specification, 2005, p.7)

Very little design restrictions exist inside of the CubeSat

architecture. Payload can be launched as long as it fits within

the form factor. Control and Data handling sub systems are at

the sole digression of the design team, although as previously

stated the PC/104 architecture is the standard control system

used. Some projects have looked at using Linux for the primary

flight control system, however the power requirements of such

systems usually require more than the satellite is able to

produce using solar panels.

Power Subsystem

Power is the primary after launch restriction. As surface

size is the primary factor in solar power collection, physical

size of the CubeSat defines the maximum power collection ability

of the system. Most CubeSats are placed in sun-sync orbit

allowing them to constantly collect solar power. The power

subsystem is usually includes a battery to stabilize the power

generated by the solar collectors.

Current CubeSat Projects

The following projects are CubeSats that have been successfully



Stanford University launched QuakeSat June 30th 2003 using

the Russian lunch system Rockot and was placed in an 840km

circular sun-sync orbit (QuakeSat, 2005). In designing QuakeSat

Stanford opted to use three 10x10x10cm units, giving the craft a

30x10x10 overall dimension, by increasing payload capacity to 3


kilograms, using the standard CubeSat form factor (Bleier, n.d.,

¶1). The mission of QuakeSat is to prove that extremely low

frequency magnetic waves can be used to detect earthquakes on

the surface of the Earth (Long, M. et al, 2002, p.1). QuakeSat

is largely a proof of concept CubeSat in that it is not known if

the ULF magnetic waves caused by an earthquake will even reach

low Earth orbit. Research at Stanford continues both in using

ULF and CubeSats for the detection of seismic events.

QuakeSat’s primary remote sensing device is a magnetometer

housed in a two-foot boom facing the planet (Long, M. et al,

p.3). Using a small E-field dipole single axis search coil

magnetometer QuakeSat monitors the upper atmosphere for seismic

activity in the form of ULF magnetic waves (Long, M. et al,

p.3). It is believed that when ULF magnetic waves interact with

the upper ionosphere and will propagate with the Earth’s

magnetic field (Long, M. et al, p.3). QuakeSat’s magnetometer

will detect these magnet waves with a resolution of .05 to 1000

Hz and transmit the data to Earth based stations (Long, M. et

al, p.3). No onboard processing of the data is done other than

multiple analog low pass, high pass, and pass band filters

(Long, M. et al, p.3).

Illinois Observing Nanosatellite (ION)

ION is the University of Illinois nanosatellite. It is the

first satellite built and launched by the University of


Illinois, and also has the distinction of being the only

satellite built and designed completely in the state of Illinois

(Swenson, n.d., ¶3). The mission of ION is to measure the

molecular oxygen airglow emissions in the Earth’s mesosphere

(Swenson, ¶2). Secondary missions for ION include performing the

first space test of the Alamedia micro-vacuum arc thrusters,

testing the Tether Application SID processor board, and using a

CMOS camera for Earth imaging (Swenson, ¶4).

From a remote sensing standpoint ION will be measuring

molecular oxygen airglow emission from the Earth’s mesosphere

using a 760nm photometer (Swenson – Payload, ¶ 3). Using the

photometer ION will be able to measure the perturbations in the

airglow; this is because oxygen at 90km emits a dim glow of

light (Swenson – Facts, ¶6). By studying the changes in airglow

ION will be able to study how energy transfers across large

special regions. Another remote sensing device onboard ION is

the CMOS sensor the same type of sensor used in some early

digital cameras, which will be capturing images, and sending it

back to Earth to be reviewed.

CUTE 1.7

CUTE 1.7 is a student lead research project being developed

by the Laboratory for Space Systems at Tokyo Institute of

Technology (CUTE-1.7+APD, n.d., ¶1). CUTE 1.7 has a double

CubeSat form factor making it 20x10x10cm, using a larger form


factor allows students to load the satellite with a larger

payload (CUTE-1.7+APD, ¶4). Like ION, CUTE 1.7 carries a CMOS

camera. Researchers use the onboard camera to verify the data

from the estimation algorithm. CUTE 1.7’s camera is also able to

take pictures of other objects in space. CUTE 1.7 also carries

two PDA processors on board (Cute-1.7 + APD II Project - Sub

Systems > C&DH, n.d., ¶2). The research teams hopes that

understanding the effects that radiation has on complex

circuitry will help scientist design protection systems for

future missions.

The most important payload on CUTE 1.7 from a remote

sensing standpoint is a payload called APD. APD stands for

Avalanche Photo-Diode; this sensor is used for X-ray/gamma ray

observation (Cute-1.7 + APD II Project - Sub Systems > APD

(Science Module), n.d., ¶1). CUTE 1.7’s mission is to monitor

charged particles flux in low-Earth orbit and estimate the total

dose of possible radiation damage expected over a one-year

mission life. Using the APD in correlation with the effects on

the PDA processors on board will help better understand the

effects radiation has on the satellite’s systems (Cute-1.7 + APD

II Project - Sub Systems > APD (Science Module), ¶1).

Possible Remote Sensing Applications


It is impossible to mention all the remote sensing

applications that could be used on a CubeSat. As miniaturization

of components continues the possible payloads increase and

CubeSat will gain more and more functionality. The following

list breaks down and discusses some of the applications that are

either currently small enough or will be small enough to be

launched as a CubeSat payload in the near future.


Image capture is the most well know of all the remote

sensing techniques. Image capture devices have been used to

capture everything from weather pattern movement to intelligence

on foreign countries. Many of the image capture devices that are

currently deployed use multiple bandwidths, both in the visible

light spectrum and the infrared spectrum. This allows the

satellite to provide extra information about the area for which

the satellite is capturing intelligence (Lillesand and Kiefer,

2000, p. 119).


Magnetometers like the one deployed on QuakeSat detect

changes in the Earth’s magnetic field (Long, M. et al, 2002,

p.3). Larger satellites such as the NASA’s GOES satellites

measure the direction and any fluctuation in the Earth’s

magnetic field. Magnetometer observations can be useful in

detecting iron deposits in the Earth’s crust, as well as


archeological sites where high amounts of metals are present

(Magnetometers, 2007, ¶3).

CubeSats can be configured with very low power

magnetometers. The primary factor in choosing the Magnetometer’s

sensitivity is the size. Since CubeSats are only 10x10x10cm in

dimension there is not much room to install a high sensitivity

magnetometer. Recall that QuakeSat uses a 3U configuration

making it 30x10x10cm. Using a larger form factor allowed

QuakeSat to store its magnetometer internally during launch, and

extend the probe after the launch was complete.


Avalanche photodiodes (APD) are photdetectors as laser range

finders and in long-range telecommunication (Avalanche

Photodiode, 2007, ¶4). Recently APDs have been used in the study

of particle physics (Avalanche Photodiode, ¶5). CUTE 1.7 uses an

APD to detect the changes in the radiation field in the upper

atmosphere. Due to the small size of most APD arrays CubeSats

can readily be equipped to carry the devices as payload.

Power is the primary concern with equipping a CubeSat with

an APD. APDs require a high reverse bias voltage in order to

achieve the avalanche effect (Avalanche Photodiode, ¶1).

Therefore, APD equipped CubeSats can only operate the payload

once the battery is charged allowing enough power to be

committed to the APD device.



Radiometers are devices that are used to measure radiant

flux (Radiometer, 2007, ¶1). While Radiometers can measure

electromagnetic radiation, the instrument is most often used in

measuring infrared radiation (Radiometer, ¶2). Measuring

infrared hotspots at low resolution can be used to predict

phenomena such as El Nino or La Nina or detect volcanic

activity. As with most payloads launched with CubeSats, power

and size are the primary concerns. The size of the capture

device is proportional to the resolution that the instrument is

able to capture.


Gravimeters are used to measure the local gravity field

around a probe (Gravimeter, 2007, ¶1). Using Einstein’

equivalence principal gravity is expressly equilivant to

acceleration, which will cause small ocillitory accelerations

(Equivalence principle, 2007, ¶3). Most CubeSats counteract this

by using onboard signal processing. Because gravimeters and

accelerometers are essentially the same, gravimeters are useful

in detecting both the gravity around a craft and acceleration of

the craft itself (Gravimeter, 2007, ¶2).


Remote sensing applications of gravimeters include many

geophysical measurements such as geodynamics, tectonophysics,

Hydrology, and geothermometry to name a few. While current

gravimeter technology is a bit large for CubeSats it is feasible

that with advancements in technology gravimeters can be carried

on future CubeSat missions.


Fifty years has seen an almost exponential change in our

use of technology and remote sensing. It could be argued that

the space race changed much of what we know about technology.

The microwave radio, telemetry, and integrated circuits are all

technologies that evolved from the race to be first in space.

With a little stretch it could be derived that a silver sphere

named Sputnik set the whole thing in motion. Now some fifty

years later high school students, college students, and even

home enthusiast have the ability to place a satellite in orbit.

While these devices are much smaller than the first

satellite they often fly with research devices that out perform

some modern day satellites. While it may be true that CubeSats

may never image far away galaxies, it cannot be said that they

do not have the ability to contribute to the wealth of science.

Just in their construction CubeSats are helping to push for

miniaturization of hardware. New shielding technologies are


being developed, as in the case of CUTE 1.7, to allow high-

density complex circuitry to avoid the affect of radiation.

It is difficult not to see the CubeSat project as a benefit

to both the academic world and the scientific world as well. Not

only do these tiny satellites help future satellite designers

get hands on learning experience, in many cases the payloads

further research inside of the scientific community. With the

ability to perform complex remote sensing work, orbits that last

as long as twenty-four months, and a low price tag, CubeSats

lead the way in pushing science into new realms.



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