Two UPC nanosatellites in orbit to study polar regions and provide Earth observation images by using artificial intelligence


Recreation of the two CubeSats, named ³Cat-5/A and ³Cat-5/B, orbiting the Earth to carry out the FSSCat mission.

Innovation and experience in nanosatellites
The FSSCat mission is the result of the collaboration of all the institutions and companies participating in the project. The ³Cat-5/A and ³Cat-5/B nanosatellites carrying it out are just two of the more than fifty small satellites that have been launched on a Vega rocket in a proof-of-concept flight to test ESA’s new dispenser called Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) on the morning of 3 September Spanish time.

The NanoSat Lab is a UPC laboratory linked to the Barcelona School of Telecommunications Engineering (ETSETB), the María de Maeztu Excellence Unit CommSensLab and the University’s Department of Signal Theory and Communications, with the support of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC).

The Lab has previously developed other small satellites of the 3Cat family, such as the 3Cat-2, the first Catalan satellite to be placed in orbit, in August 2016.

In this laboratory, doctoral students are also working on how to apply artificial intelligence to engineering systems designed for future space missions, such as merging SMOS and Sentinel-1 data, mitigating radio frequency interference and providing intersatellite contact to set up connections and federations.


The ³Cat-5/A and ³Cat-5/B, nanosatellites, owned by the UPC, have been assembled by the Italian company Tyvak. They are about the size of a shoe box and they carry on board state-of-the-art microwave sensors and multispectral optical sensors among other devices. Credits: Tyvak Intl.


Image of the internal structure of the nanosatellites and the units among which the payload, the technology demonstrators and the systems required for the mission are distributed. Credits: Tyvak Intl.


Two young researchers at the UPC’s NanoSat Lab testing the devices aboard the small satellites.


The launch was successful this morning, 3 September Spanish time. The ³Cat-5/A and ³Cat-5/B nanosatellites carrying it out on the FSSCat mission are just two of the more than fifty small satellites that have been launched on a Vega rocket in a proof-of-concept flight to test ESA’s new dispenser called Small Spacecraft Mission Service (SSMS) oon 2 September from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana (at 03.51 on 3 September Spanish time).

Two small satellites created at the UPC’s Nanosat Lab have travelled to space from Kourou, French Guiana, on 2 September (at 3.51 a.m. on 3 September Spanish time) to carry out the FSSCat mission, which received the ESA Sentinel Small Satellite (S^3) Challenge award in 2017. The main objective of the mission is to monitor polar ice and soil moisture while testing intersatellite communication systems in order to create a future network of federated satellites. The ɸ-sat-1 technology demonstrator is also on board, it is ESA’s first artificial intelligence in space and it will filter out images of the Earth that are not suitable for use because of cloud cover.

Sep 03, 2020

Rising temperatures in the polar regions have a major environmental and economic impact around the world. Therefore, it is highly important to register and monitor variations in snow and ice thickness, which is one of the aims of the mission FSSCat: Federated Satellite System 6U tandem mission for sea ice and soil moisture monitoring.

The mission is led by the professor Adriano Camps, the scientific coordinator of the UPC’s María de Maeztu Excellence Unit CommSensLab, the director of the NanoSat Lab of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC) and a researcher at the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC), and Alessandro Golkar, a professor from the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Russia and the second principal investigator of the project.

The FSSCat mission is to place in orbit two small CubeSat satellites, named ³Cat-5/A and ³Cat-5/B, that carry scientific equipment for monitoring soil moisture—a crucial variable for agriculture, desertification studies, fire danger index calculation, etc.—and snow and ice extent and thickness in the polar regions—which are fundamental parameters for maritime navigation and for monitoring climate change.

This mission is expected to improve the current spatial resolution of soil moisture maps, combining state-of-the-art microwave instruments, designed and built by the UPC’s NanoSat Lab, and hyperspectral optical instruments, developed by the Dutch company Cosine Remote Sensing.

The final FSSCat mission also carries on board the technology demonstrator ɸ-Sat-1 (pronounced PhiSat-1), promoted by the ɸ-Department of the European Space Agency (ESA), which is Europe’s first artificial intelligence in space. It is the first experiment ever for improving the efficiency of sending vast quantities of data back to Earth. ɸ-Sat-1 has been developed by a consortium of entities, led by the company Cosine Remote Sensing (the Netherlands) with the University of Pisa (Italy), Sinergise (Slovenia) and Ubotica (Ireland).

The consortium of the FSSCat mission is made up of the UPC’s NanoSat Lab, DEIMOS Engenharia (the Portuguese branch of the international company Elecnor Deimos), Golbriak Space OÜ (Estonia), Cosine Remote Sensing (the Netherlands) and Tyvak International (Italy), which has tested and integrated the components into the nanosatellites and performed other pre-launch operations. The consortium has received financial support and technical supervision from ESA.

The data generated by the FSSCat mission and ɸ-Sat-1 will be open via the Copernicus distribution channels.

ESA award-winning project
The mission was born from the homonymous project presented by the UPC professor Adriano Camps and the visiting professor Alessandro Golkar from Skoltech. The project won the Sentinel Small Sat (S^3) Challenge Award of ESA, the most important category of the Copernicus Masters awards in November 2017.

The prize of one million euros, excluding launch costs, allowed the winning team—chosen from a total of 39 European teams—to produce two small satellites. The project also received the Overall Winner award, which distinguishes the best initiative of the Copernicus Masters.

Integrated radiometer and GNSS-reflectometer
Some of the innovative techniques that travel on board, such as pixel decomposition by merging VNIR data and microwave radiometer data, have been developed by the UPC, by the Institute of Marine Sciences of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), with the support of the IEEC and within the framework of the Soil Moisture Ocean Salinity (SMOS) project, and by DEIMOS Engenharia.

This technology has been evolving in other ESA missions and in Spanish and European projects and it is now integrated into the flexible microwave payload (FMPL-2) travelling aboard the ³Cat-5/A satellite. The FMPL-2 combines an L-band radiometer and a global navigation satellite system reflectometer (GNSS-R), which receives navigation signals from several reflection points on the Earth’s surface. The system acts as a bistatic radar and scatterometer. GNSS L-band satellites (1-2 GHz) act as transmitters and the receiver is hosted on one of the satellites of the FSSCat mission.

The FMPL-2 instrument was developed within the framework of Joan Francesc Muñoz’s doctoral thesis and the receiving antenna by the doctoral student Lara Fernández. A version of the GNSS reflectometer is now in the Arctic within the MOSAIC campaign for collecting ice data and performing the calibration of the FSSCat observations. These doctoral students are graduates of the UPC’s master’s degree in Telecommunications Engineering.

The first ‘federated mission’
This mission will also verify the concept of ‘federated mission’ devised by the professor Alessandro Golkar, in which mission resources (such as data, information, on-board processing, etc.) are shared between several satellites. In this case, the satellites are at a distance of up to 1,000 kilometres from each other.

These small satellites embark optical communication technology, developed by the company Golbriak OÜ, that has the potential to transmit large volumes of information with less interference than in the current radio links used between satellites. The FSSCat will be testing this technology, which is essential for setting up robust satellite networks in the future.

The satellites also carry on board the federated satellite system experiment (FSSExp), based on a UHF radio intersatellite communication system that covers a distance up to 1,000 kilometres. This technology is the result of the research by Joan Adrià Ruiz de Azúa, a doctoral student at the NanoSat Lab and a graduate of the UPC’s master’s degree in Telecommunications Engineering. Ruiz de Azúa has tested a communication protocol for these small satellites to be able to manage resources collaboratively. This technology has been validated recently on an experimental basis by using three stratospheric balloons sharing resources to register and download data acquired at the base station.

Hyperspectral optical technology
3Cat-5/B carries a hyperspectral optical payload called HyperScout-2, developed by Cosine Remote Sensing, which collects and processes images in the visible, near-infrared and thermal-infrared parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. These images can be used to estimate surface changes, collect information on evapotranspiration, determine effects such as urban heat islands, locate oil spills, monitor fires, estimate water quality and, combined with FMPL-2, obtain higher-resolution soil moisture maps.

The data registered by ³Cat-5/A will be received twice a day by the S-band antenna of the UPC’s monitoring station that was installed at the Montsec Astronomical Observatory of the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia, in Lleida. The station was installed within the research of Adrián Pérez, a graduate of the UPC’s master’s degree in Telecommunications Engineering, and the bachelor’s thesis of Aina García, from the UPC’s Barcelona School of Informatics (FIB).

Once on the ground, the data obtained will be automatically processed in the ground segment developed by DEIMOS Engenharia, which will catalogue such data for public use.

First artificial intelligence in orbit
ESA ɸ-Department worked to develop and integrate ɸ-Sat-1 into the FSSCat mission, which is Europe’s first artificial intelligence to be placed in orbit. This technology is based on an algorithm developed by Cosine Remote Sensing, which leads the consortium formed by Synergise, the University of Pisa and Ubotica, and it will be used to ensure that better quality images are sent to Earth.

The experiment specifically aims to test an Intel Movidius board with a Myriad II chip that detects cloud condensation nuclei in the images by using hyperspectral optical imaging. Despite the large amount of data generated, this technology is able to filter out those images that it deems unsuitable for use.