CubeSat: a dynasty of nanosatellites starts its orbit

Department of Signal Theory and Communications (COMMSENSLAB)
  • 3Cat-1 is a nanosatellite developed at the NanoSat Lab of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC).
  • Aboard the PSLV-C43 Indian rocket, the satellite acquired its nominal orbit of 504 kilometers of height, in a success that comes after four previous attempts in recent years.
  • The 3Cat-1 Astronomical Observatory of Montsec will keep track of the satellite and its signals.


On past November, the 3Cat-1 nanosatellite successfully entered orbit. The satellite was developed at the Payload and Small Satellite Laboratory (NanoSat Lab) of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) by a team of students. The launch, financed entirely by the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC), was carried out with the rocket PSLV-C43, launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota (India).


Fourth time lucky

The final launch of 3Cat-1 could take place only 4.5 years after the scheduled date. In April 2014 everything was ready for takeoff from Russia, aboard a Dnepr rocket. Unfortunately, the war between Russia and Ukraine, which had begun the same month, led to the cancellation of all the planned launches for that rocket.

Just over a year later, the small UPC satellite was waiting impatiently for another chance to get into orbit, this time aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from the SpaceX company. The launch was supposed to take place in July of 2015, but a few weeks before a Falcon 9 exploded in flight. This accident forced 3Cat-1 to wait for a new opportunity. Shortly after, a second explosion of Falcon 9 postponed, for the third time, the planned release date, and this time indefinitely.

Liftoff of a Dnepr rocket. 3Cat1 launch on a Dnepr rocket was cancelled in April 2014 due to the ruso-ukraininian conflict.

Over the last two years the team had been searching for an alternative, which in the end turned out to be the PSLV-C43 Indian rocket. Ignasi Ribas said, "it has been a success, especially after the uncertainty and mishaps experienced in recent years." Adriano Camps added that "we are very pleased that the launch has gone well. Now it's time to wait and see if the signals are received correctly ".


The focus of the experiment

Once in orbit, the satellite began its experiments focusing on Earth observation and the validation and testing of space technologies. The monitoring of 3Cat-1 will be done by members of NanoSat Lab, from the communications station located at the Astronomical Observatory of Montsec (Sant Esteve de la Sarga, Lleida), a facility of the Catalan Government managed by IEEC.

3Cat-1 houses experiments that aim, among other goals, to develop enhanced instrument performance in the harsh space conditions.

The experiments on the satellite are six. The first of the technologies to be tested is a graphene transistor developed by the Stockholm Royal Institute of Technology (KTH, Sweden). The experiment within 3Cat-1 checks the behaviour of this graphene transistor in the aggressive conditions of space.

A commercial Geiger counter, an instrument measuring radioactive particles and ionizing radiation, analyses the effect of highly charged energy particles. The same device will be used to measure the impact of radiation on the other experiments onboard.

A resonant microelectromechanical system will measure, in situ for the first time, how monoatomic oxygen attacks a polymer used in electronics applications. This is particularly relevant since monoatomic oxygen is very reactive, and is present at low-altitude orbits.

Next, a new system of environmental energy collection created at the NanoSat Lab, together with a technology to transmit energy towards space wirelessly is also put to the test. The sixth and final load on board is a camera taking photographs of the Earth from space.


A Catalan dynasty

Despite being the second to actually reach space (3Cat-2 was launched on August 15, 2018), 3Cat-1 is the first of a series of small experimental satellites, the 3Cat, which follow the CubeSat standard. CubeSat nanosatellites are small volume devices: combinations of cubes about 10 centimeters wide, weighing between one and ten kilograms. Thanks to the use of standardized commercial components, they make it possible for students and researchers in university research groups to use CubeSat systems.

The ambitious project to design, manufacture and test the CubeSats series has lasted for the past seven years at the NanoSat Lab, a laboratory backed by the Barcelona School of Telecommunications Engineering (ETSETB) of the UPC with the support of the IEEC.

Cubesat satellites in orbit around the Earth.

Adriano Camps, professor of the Department of Signal Theory and Communications and one of the managers at NanoSat Lab, said that "designing, building and testing CubeSats at the NanoSat Lab has been a unique and very enriching experience. I am very pleased to have helped to train dozens of engineers, integrating virtually all Telecommunications and Electronics subjects into just a cubic decimeter." Ignasi Ribas, director of the IEEC, explained that "at the IEEC, we have been committed to the world of nanosatellites for years, as we believe it is an expanding area that supports the democratisation of access to space."



Image Credits:

Close up of Dnepr launch vehicle during lift-off licensed from Wikimedia Commons, with an Attribution 2.5 Generic (CC BY 2.5) license.

Honeycomb Nebula picture licensed from NASA Hubble Space Telescope's stream at Flickr, with a Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Frontpage picture Hubble Team Unveils the Most Colorful View of Universe Captured by Space Telescope by the NASA Hubble Space Telescope in the public domain downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. Particular conditions apply. Authors: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

Picture of cubesat satellites in orbit around the Earth kindly provided by COMMSENSLAB.

Related articles