Tiny camera brings big league applications to petite satellites

European Space Agency developed CubeSat camera sports spectral vision, data compression

The European Space Agency has developed a tiny spectrum-revealing camera that can fly inside tiny satellites known as CubeSats making it ideal for many applications from agriculture to environmental research.

The hyperspectral camera could fit in the palm of your hand and works by dividing-up hundreds of narrow, adjacent wavelengths which reveal 'spectral signatures' of particular features, crops or materials, providing valuable data for fields such as mineralogy, agricultural forecasting and environmental monitoring, the ESA stated.

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The ESA said the small hyperspectral system is complementary to its larger brothers that weigh over 100kg (220 lbs.)and require full-sized satellites.

"It won't replace [full-sized hyperspectral imagers], possessing lower spectral resolution and signal-to-noise ratio, but it could do some useful complementary work as a low-cost instrument of opportunity, added to standard satellite payloads or flown on its own aboard CubeSats," said ESA's Alessandro Zuccaro Marchi, who is overseeing the project.

The optics are based around a compact trio of precisely curved aluminum mirrors. Larger 'Three Mirror Anastigmat' telescopes are well known and already widely used for space applications, Zuccaro stated. 

Another key component of the small camera is support of data compression techniques to reduce the huge amount of information that the instrument can produce down to levels that are more easily handled by a miniature satellite's limited communications for downlink to Earth.

To prove the technological feasibility, a prototype engineering model of the instrument's telescope was built by Dutch company VDL ETG under ESA contract, the agency stated.

CubeSats are tiny satellites with typical dimensions of 10×10×10 centimeters, weighing a little less than 3lbs, and usually employ commercial off-the-shelf electronics components.  They are increasingly an affordable satellite alternative for university departments or small- to mid-sized companies.

Many CubeSats - whether single, double or triple versions - are flown annually, often with multiple CubeSats hitching a ride within dispensers on an individual rocket launch, the ESA  noted.

NASA recently said it was looking into developing two new Centennial Challenge competitions that would let the public design, build and deliver Cubesats capable of operations and experiments near the moon and beyond.  Centennial Challenges typically dare public and private partnerships to come up with a unique solution to a very tough problem, usually with prize money attached for the winner. 

NASA said the two challenges would provide competitive opportunities for competition teams to deploy CubeSats on a NASA provided launch.  The cube-shaped satellites are typically  about four inches long, have a volume of about one quart and weigh about 3 pounds, NASA said.  The RFI looks to gather feedback on the two competitions being considered, the prize amounts and distribution structure as well as to determine the level of interest in potentially competing in these challenges.

The first challenge will focus on finding innovative ways to allow deep space communications with small spacecraft, while the second focuses on primary propulsion for small spacecraft. Currently CubeSat communications technology has been limited to low-bandwidth data communications in near-Earth orbits.

CubeSats often use low power / low-gain communications subsystems, unique protocols, or amateur radio wavelengths not suitable for advanced science missions in the remote distances of deep space, NASA said.   As for the propulsion issue, NASA said developers are only starting to introduce limited in-space propulsion systems to CubeSats.  Together, these challenges are expected to contribute to opening deep space exploration to non-government spacecraft for the first time, NASA stated.

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