Alba Orbital and its PocketQube missions
Alba Orbital Ltd, a startup comapny of Glasgow, Scotland (UK), with ESA (European Space Agency), has developed a flight proven 3p PocketQube platform called Unicorn-2. The goal of the platform is to get 3U CubeSat performance on a PocketQube. We save satellite operators over 50% of the cost by using Unicorn-2 instead of a standard 3U CubeSat for Hardware and Launch. 1)
Definition of the PocketQube: The PocketQube standard allows for satellites of varying size measured in standard units. A single-unit, or 1p, PocketQube is one eighth the size of a single-unit CubeSat – with a side length of 5 cm. Single, 1.5 and 2.5 unit satellites have been developed.
Advancements in the miniaturization of electronic technologies that enabled the development of the smartphone, has revolutionized society. For instance, the example of the smartphone empowered the average person to have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips, democratizing access to information on a global scale. This same driving force of technological miniaturization, known as ‘Moore’s Law’, has enabled the development of the ‘PocketQube’ - a satellite small enough to fit in your pocket. As Tom Walkinshaw, Founder & CEO of Alba Orbital notes, ‘The PocketQube revolution is almost like going from the mainframe era of computers to the age of information with democratized access to the internet. It’s the same thing for space - PocketQubes are democratizing access to space.” 2)
PocketQubes are highly miniaturized satellites, one eighth the size of a CubeSat, comprising of one or more cubic units of 5 cm with a maximum mass of 250 g per unit or ‘P’. The original concept was proposed in 2009 by professor Bob Twiggs as a solution to further reduce the costs and development time involved with satellite development, widening the doors of space access for small organizations to develop their own space program.
Launch: On 6 December 2019, Alba Orbital made history as they broke the world record for most PocketQube satellites deployed in-orbit. Alba Orbital, the Scottish-based PocketQube manufacturer, successfully launched six picosatellites from New Zealand on Rocket Lab’s 10th Electron flight, ‘Running out of fingers’. Included in this historic launch were Hungary’s first picosatellites, SMOG-P & ATL-1, developed by faculty and students at the Budapest University of Technology & Economics (BME) - the leading technological university in Hungary. 3)
The seven satellites on board were for commercial rideshare customers Alba Orbital and ALE (the latter of which was procured by Spaceflight) bringing the total number of small satellites deployed by Rocket Lab to 47, continuing the company’s record of 100% mission success for customers. ALE’s payload was deployed to a 400 km circular orbit, before the Kick Stage’s Curie engine reignited and dropped the stage to a circular 385 km orbit for deployment of Alba Orbital’s payloads.
According to team leader, Dr Gschwindt, the team had decided to develop picosatellites as the reduced form factor inherent with the PocketQube standard would greatly reduce both development time and economic costs. Dr Gschwindt and his team at BME have been active developers of PocketQubes since they started in 2014 and have since developed three PocketQubes - SMOG-1, SMOG-P and ATL-1.
Figure 1: PocketQubes integrated in AlbaPod deployer prior to launch. Left to right: 2P ATL-1, 1P FOSSASAT-1, 1P SMOG-P and 1P TRSI-1 (image credit: Alba Orbital)
ATL-1 and SMOG-P were successfully put into orbit via Alba Cluster 2, and have been performing beyond expectations in-orbit. SMOG-P has broken records as the most successful 1P PocketQube mission to operate in space, as the satellite continues to report valuable data on man-made electrosmog pollution in a way never done before. The project has been so impressive that Dr Robert Twiggs, the professor who first proposed the idea of 5 cm picosatellites, had congratulated Dr Gschwindt’s team on their mission success, asking them to keep him posted on their future activities.
Following the success on their PocketQube launch with Alba Orbital, BME university’s Senate unanimously supported the establishment of a space engineering master program at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Informatics - the preparations are currently ongoing, and the training is expected to start in the autumn of 2021.
SMOG-P is Hungary’s first 1P PocketQube, measuring at 5 x 5 x 5 cm, developed as part of an academic program at BME. The development of SMOG-P started as far back as 2014. The team consists of students supervised by University professors from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Informatics (VIK) of BME. Since kicking off the project in 2014, several bachelor and master theses, scientific publications and PhD researches have contributed to the success of SMOG-P. On the topic of using PocketQubes as an educational tool, Dr Gschwindt highlights that ”These satellites were designed and built as part of the academic program where teachers and students often learned together. This is a great starting point from which to introduce space engineer training.”
Figure 2: The SMOG team formed of Lecturers and Students from BME University, Hungery (image credit: BME, Alba Orbital)
Unicorn-2 Platform Features and Specifications
Unicorn-2 is the worlds most advanced picosatellite by an order of magnitude on all specifications, on all subsystems. We have redefined what a PocketQube can do and in the process opened the door for a suite of users to take advantage of this breakthrough technology platform.
The most powerful picosatellite ever created
Unicorn-2 boasts the worlds first Picosatellite Quadruple deployable solar panel. This creates in-excess of 19 W peak power (19.96 W on the standard version), with standard missions generating 10-15 W on orbit average. Payloads have up to 5 W available per orbit via a 3v3, 5, or 12v line rated for up to 5 amps. Our nominal configuration has 14.8 W of storage available via two Lithium-Ion batteries, mounted externally to increase payload volume. Unicorn-2 is one of the worlds best performing satellites as measured by power to mass.
One of our key insights from Unicorn-1 is that picosatellites should be integrated instead of a modular configuration. There are 7 billion smartphones globally and all manufacturers have chosen integration as a design philosophy. Unicorn's key subsystems, EPS, OBC and ADCS are all integrated into one PCB (Printed Circuit Board). This allows the majority of the inside volume of the satellite to be used for the valuable thing ... payload! Our optical payload take up 50% of our platform allowing for higher resolution imagery for EO missions.
Alba Orbital have designed and integrated the worlds first Attitude Determination and Control System for a PocketQube class satellite. This allows a worst case pointing accuracy of 5 degrees. The platform is equipped with two 2-axis sun sensors, 4 Light Dependent Resistors, 3 brushless motors with reaction wheels and 3 axis magnetometer and magnetorquers.
Alba Orbital have developed two custom radios and antennas for Unicorn-2. Our UHF and S-band modules can downlink at up to 200kbit/s, opening the opportunity to fly more data intensive payloads. Unicorn-2 as standard uses a custom UHF monopole (omnidirectional) and a higher gain S-band patch antenna (directive).
Unicorn-2 Mission Ideas
The Unicorn-2 PocketQube Platform can service a wide number of potential mission types. We have detailed some of the more common missions type/payloads below. Unicorn-2 is a versatile satellite platform and we enjoy finding new ways to meet your user requirements.
Earth Observation missions
The U2 Platform was baselined around an Earth observation platform. Our Tech demo mission U2A is flying an RGB 70 mm focal length optical payload which is capable of approximately 15 m GSD at an orbital altitude of 350 km. This payload can be upgraded to hit better specifications or to look at different spectral bands. This is a great way to launch your new imaging service.
Figure 3: Optical Layout of the Unicorn-2 satellite. Lowest cost satellite and launch solution (video credit: Alba Orbital)
Internet of Things (IoT) communications missions
Our most popular version of U2 is our communications variant. Servicing communications clients for Internet of Things style missions, as well as new developing markets is well within scope of the platform. Building on our heritage of Intersatellite links (from Unicorn-1) we can build both real-time and store/forward type missions. This is a great way to launch your new communications service into orbit.
Figure 4: Unicorn-2 IoT configuration (video credit: Alba Orbital)
RF Sensing missions
Our platform can be used for hosting RF Sensing missions such as ADSB, AIS and Spectrum monitoring, tracking Aircraft, Ships and spectrum usages. Off the shelf payload solutions such as the Skyfox Labs ADSB Antenna/Receiver are compatible with U2. This is an idea way to create a new proprietary dataset for your customer base to utilize.
The AlbaPod was developed in the UK by Glasgow-based Alba Orbital when it became clear to the developers of these ultra-small platforms that an adequate PocketQube launch infrastructure did not exist. “It was obvious that client demand required an increase in picosatellite deployers, designed to the specifications of the PocketQube Standard,” explains Tom Walkinshaw, CEO of AlbaOrbital. “We knew that this would provide more reliable and frequent launch opportunities.” 4)
The AlbaPod – which meets the launch environment requirements of most major launch providers – does just this, and makes it possible for PocketQubes to be integrated on any launch vehicle as part of a ‘rideshare’ mission. — In December 2019, the AlbaPod was successfully qualified after deploying six PocketQubes in low earth orbit, via an Electron rocket launch from Mahia, New Zealand.
Barnaby Osborne, Technical Officer of the project at ESA says: “The lightweight, unique design can be easily integrated into any launch vehicle. Alba Orbital have made extensive use of 3D printing to lower the cost of the deployer, while still maintaining the demanding quality standards required for space. This is a key requirement for their target customers, who need low-cost reliable access to launch services.”
During the project the Alba Orbital/ARTES team were not only able to successfully demonstrate the AlbaPod 6p (6 units) through the deployment of PocketQubes in orbit, they also managed to reduce the weight of the AlbaPod by using aluminium and windform (a ground-breaking 3-D printing material); and then successfully integrate the AlbaPod with Rocket Lab’s Electron Launch Vehicle.
Figure 5: The most innovative aspect of the project was the sheer number of components that are now produced through additive manufacturing - not only was the shell redesigned using 3D printing, but also the moving ejection mechanism and door assembly (image credit: Alba Orbital)
Tom Walkinshaw, Founder and CEO of Alba Orbital says: “This ARTES project has seen the first flight opportunity for the AlbaPod – which is coincidentally also the first flight opportunity for Alba Orbital’s Unicorn-2 Satellite platform; another ESA project which is the most capable PocketQube platform in production.“
Alba Orbital announces successful integration of 9 PocketQube satellites ahead of Alba Cluster 3 SpaceX Launch in Q2 2021
October 27, 2020: Alba Orbital Ltd today announced the successful integration of nine PocketQube satellites ahead of their upcoming Alba Cluster 3 mission, ‘That time of year’, which will be the largest PocketQube launch in history to date. Using the company’s AlbaPod v2, the world’s only space proven PocketQube deployer, Alba Orbital will take customer satellites to orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle in December 2020 as part of a rideshare agreement. 5) 6)
Figure 6: Left: AlbaPod integrated with 3 satellite (DelfiPQ and twin AMSAT-EA PocketQubes HADES and EASAT-2). Right: TRSI-2 (1p) and Unicorn-1 (2p)integrated into AlbaPod deployer (image credit: Alba Orbital)
PocketQubes are tiny satellites that are small enough to fit in your pocket. They are composed of 5cm cubes that can be stacked to make larger variants, which are referred to as ‘p’, for example a 1p satellite measures at 5 x 5 x 5 cm and 2p’s are 5 x 5 x 10 cm. These satellites are driving the revolution in democratising access to space, as PocketQubes remove economic barriers during both development and launch.
Figure 7: DelfiPQ (3P PocketQube) being prepared for integration in Alba Orbital Ltd's cleanroom (image credit: Alba Orbital)
When we started thinking about building a satellite, we first saw the Cubesat standard and thought that this was the only thing available to small organisations like ours, but this was too expensive - over 100,000 Euros! When we heard about PocketQubes we were really excited because they were cheaper to develop and to put in space. Until now, only major organisations, big companies, and some universities could raise the funds to fly satellites
Figure 8: EASAT-2 1.5p - One of two twin PocketQube satellites from AMSAT-EA manifested to launch on Alba Cluster 3 in Q2 2021 (image credit: Alba Orbital)
PocketQube satellites from all over the world are getting to space with Alba Orbital for Alba Cluster 3.The PocketQubes confirmed to launch on Alba Cluster 3 are:
• DelfiPQ: A 3p PocketQube developed by TU Delft (Netherlands). DelfiPQ is the start of a iteratively developed line of PocketQubes with the aim to enable new and unforeseen missions with distributed networks of PocketQubes. Delfi-PQ is testing a LOFAR payload and a laser retro reflector.
• Grizu-263a: A 1p PocketQube developed by Zonguldak Bülent Ecevit University (Turkey). Grizu-263a carries an inertial measurement sensor and a passive magnetic control subsystem (PMACS).
• TRSI-2: A 1p PocketQube developed by TRSI (Germany).
• HADES & EASAT-2: Twin 1.5p PocketQubes developed by AMSAT-EA (Spain). EASAT-2 was developed in collaboration with the European University of Madrid and its mission is to be a satellite for communication between radio amateurs via a 145/435 MHz transponder. It also carries a basalt from Lanzarote, similar to lunar ones, provided by the CSIC research group on meteorites and planetary geosciences.
- HADES is also an FM/FSK voice and data repeater for amateur use and carries a SSTV camera module developed and manufactured in the Department of Radioelectronics of the Brno University of Technology in the Czech Republic.
• SATTLA-2: A 2p PocketQube developed by Ariel University (Israel), which will utilize WiFi cards for extreme long-range link applicable to transmit video for over 600 km in LOS conditions.
• Unicorn-1, Unicorn-2A & Unicorn-2D: Unicorn-1 is a 2p built in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA). Unicorn-2A and 2D are earth imaging 3p PocketQubes also developed by Alba Orbital UG (Germany).
Figure 9: Left: Thumbs up for integration! Tom Walkinshaw (Founder and CEO of Alba Orbital) with Turkey's first picosatellite Grizu-263a (1p). Right: Thumbs up for integration! Returning launch customer from ACME AtronOmatic holding TRSI-2 (1p) in Alba Orbital's lab prior to integration (image credit: Alba Orbital)
The cluster includes Turkey’s first pico-satellite, Grizu-263a which was designed by a team of engineering students from Zonguldak Bülent Ecevit University and named in honor of the 1992 Kozlu coal mine disaster. The Grizu team are joined by other prestigious universities on the Alba Cluster 3 lineup such as TU Delft and Ariel University. ACME AtronOmatic who flew TRSI-1 on Alba Cluster 2, also joins the Alba Cluster 3 roster as Alba Orbital’s first returning launch customer.
Speaking on why TU Delft signed up to launch with Alba Orbital, Delfi-PQ team member, M. Ş. (Mehmet) Uludağ said: ”Alba Orbital are one of the first and only companies to focus solely on PocketQubes, so it is nice when a company has a focus as you can communicate with them easily and they can really understand your problems. Alba Orbital are also the only company right now who have a qualified PocketQube Deployer and this gives you a certain confidence that your satellite will be deployed without any problems.’’
The Alba Cluster 3 mission is named ‘That time of year’ in homage to the first back-to-back PocketQube launch, building on the company’s successful Alba Cluster 2 launch in 2019, which deployed six PocketQubes into orbit including two of Alba Orbital’s Unicorn-2 pico-satellites.
Alba Orbital Cluster 3 is manifested on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and is scheduled for a Q2 2021 launch date with a target SSO (Polar) Orbit (500 to 600 km). Speaking on the success of Alba’s PocketQube launch business, Founder and CEO, Tom Walkinshaw added:
‘This a huge milestone for Alba and the PocketQube community. Demonstrating annual, reliable and affordable flights for the PocketQube standard is what is required for more teams to get involved in PQs. This flight nearly doubles the number of PocketQubes ever flown to orbit (10 to 19), with Alba orbiting 15 of those satellites.’
Figure 10: Camera gather round to capture this historic event in PocketQube history (image credit: Alba Orbital)
Development status - and design rules and suggestions
• May 17, 2021: Alba Orbital is pleased to announce we have closed our Seed round to accelerate our mission to image everywhere on earth every 15 minutes. 7)
- The round was led by Metaplanet Holdings and included Y Combinator, Liquid2, Soma, Uncommon Denominator, Zillionize and a number of angel investors.
- To date Alba Orbital has launched 6 satellites, more than all the other Y Combinator companies combined, with another 9 integrated and ready to launch in a few months.
• April 14, 2021: We are pleased to announce that Alba Orbital has become the 1st Scottish company to take investment from Y Combinator. YC is famous for being an early investor in Airbnb, Dropbox, Twitch, Stripe, Reddit and many more billion dollar startups and is seen as the top global program for early stage startups on the planet. 8)
Figure 11: Photo of Tom Walkinshaw, Founder and CEO of Alba Orbital (image credit: Alba Orbital)
• January 26, 2021: PocketQubes are small, and this can present design challenges; but the tips and tricks below should help you out when miniaturizing your payload or designing your satellite to the PocketQube standard. 9)
Figure 12: Payload board for a ‘Unicorn-2’ 3p PocketQube Satellite (next to Lego figure for scale), image credit: Alba Orbital
Increase the number of layers
- This might seem obvious, but don’t be afraid to add layers, you can get up to 10 in a standard 1.6mm board. This will allow you to be far more compact in your layout. It also gives you far more flexibility for managing EMI on your now much smaller board. Try to define your layer stack at the beginning of the project.
Figure 13: Photo credit: (D. Carey, "Packaging for Portables; Going Vertical & Getting Small," Central Texas Electronics Association (CTEA) Electronics Design and Manufacturing Symposium, October 7, 2010.)
- When designing payloads for compact environments stacking PCBs on top of each other can be an easy way of creating more space. However, care must be taken with connector selection to ensure signal integrity is maintained throughout the PCB stack.
Harmonize power rails
- If possible, reducing the number of different voltages required by the circuit can save a lot of space, both internally and externally. Power planes take up space internally and power converters take up valuable real estate on the external layers. Additionally, the size of power converter passive components can be reduced by moving to a higher frequency power converter.
- There is often a fear of using compact high frequency power converters because of the increased EMI, however this can be mitigated using appropriate design techniques.
Alternative Packages or Components
- Wherever possible opt for surface mount packages, this is particularly important if you have a board with a high number of layers.
- Components should be checked to see if there are smaller packages available or if possible an alternative with a smaller package should be used.
Figure 14: Photo credit: Twitter @gregdavill
- Unfortunately moving to a compact design might mean leaving behind your favorite chunky connectors. But there are a huge range of compact connector solutions available. The connector should be considered early in the design.
EMI (Electromagnetic Interference)
a) Managing EMI is a huge topic, so here I have listed some headline points and some resources if you want to learn more.
b) Don’t just assume it will be fine because you are working from an existing design. You now no longer have the luxury of physical distance to attenuate radiated EMI.
c) Evaluate your decoupling capacitors, then add more. Then add some more ....then maybe just a couple more ...
d) Think about what components will be generating the EMI (i.e switch mode power supplies, inductors, FPGAs), and what components will be sensitive (i.e sensors). Keep these components and traces separate as much as possible. For example, route your high and low speed traces on separate planes.
e) Use differential pairs for sensitive analog signals.
f) Be extremely careful when splitting your ground plane across two or more layers. If you do, take care to use buried and blind vias to only connect to the appropriate ground planes. Multiple ground planes should be via-stitched together round the edge of the PCB and at the power supply. I would highly recommend reading sources 4 and 5 linked below to get a good understanding of grounding in PCB design.
• December 14, 2020: ADCS (Attitude Determination and Control System)
- ADCS have been studied and implemented in Cubesat size spacecraft for around a decade. This period brought great accuracy which in return allowed for attitude sensitive payloads such as earth observation hardware. It has been a golden age for the CubeSat standard, however, it may be time for certain applications to move on. The PocketQube standard (50 x 50 x 50 mm) provides the next step in evolution for a wide range of space missions. This blog post is not going too much further into the details of the standard but if you are interested you can read more here. In addition to the basics, you can read more about software development for PocketQubes here.
Figure 15: Alba Orbital's Unicorn-2 picosatellite featuring the world’s smallest ADCS (image credit: Alba Orbital)
- An ADCS is a system that allows the satellite to determine and change its attitude in orbit. As mentioned previously, the determination actuation methods have been studied rigorously for CubeSat standard and they remain mostly unchanged for the PocketQubes. The one thing that has to be always kept in mind is the necessity for optimization. Anything that might require too much processing or power has to be either turned on only when absolutely necessary or has to be replaced by more simple and less demanding hardware.
- The size of the satellite is both ADCS's best friend and worst enemy. Due to the small size and weight of the spacecraft, the ADCS can embrace the minimalistic dimensions with ease while maintaining enough force for reliable control. The complications arise from the necessity to optimize every single aspect of the satellite. In this case, the biggest limitation arises from the power budget. ADCS can easily become a black hole for the energy stored by the solar panels. For this reason, ADCS is only called for when required. This strategy induces certain uncertainty but it ensures the satisfactory lifetime of the satellite while delivering results when needed.
Figure 16: Unicorn-2 ADCS, air bearing/helmholtz test PocketQube Satellite (video credit: Alba Orbital)
- Alba Orbital has developed the world's smallest ADCS on board the Unicorn-2 platform. This State of the art ADCS is the first ever ADCS to be integrated onto a PocketQube class satellite, developed in collaboration by Dr. Matteo Cerriotti of the University of Glasgow and Alba Orbital’s leading spacecraft engineers. Their work delivered a capable ADCS that powers multiple missions. This system is based on magnetorquers, reaction wheels, sunsensors, light dependent resistor magnetometer and gyroscope all of which enables the satellite to perform exemplary detumbling as well as accurate inertial pointing. But the road does not end there. Alba Orbital is determined to perfect the Unicorn-2 platform to empower a constellation of PocketQube satellites that will deliver accessible, high-quality data sets.
- Building on Unicorn-2’s flight heritage from 2019, three more Unicorns are manifested to launch on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 as part of the sold out ‘Alba Cluster 3’ mission, which is the largest PocketQube launch cluster in history to date. If you would like to know more about how Unicorn-2 can support your in-orbit mission, feel free to get in touch at email@example.com or visit the Unicorn-2 webpage.
”Rocket Lab launches milestone tenth mission, completes major
success for reusable rocket program , ”Rocket Lab , 9 December
2019, ” Rocket Lab, URL: https://www.rocketlabusa.com/news/updates/
4) ”AlbaPod: the most advanced space-proven PocketQube deployer,” ESA, 30 November 2020, URL: https://artes.esa.int/news/albapod-most-advanced-spaceproven-pocketqube-deployer
5) ”Alba Orbital announces successful integration of 9 PocketQube satellites ahead of Alba Cluster 3 SpaceX Launch in June 2021,” Alba Orbital, 27 October 2020, URL: http://www.albaorbital.com/integration
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).