UPC project receives ESA’s Sentinel Small Satellite Challenge award and is overall winner of the Copernicus Masters

An initiative presented by UPC researcher Adriano Camps and Alessandro Golkar, a visiting professor from the Skoltech Institute of Science and Technology in Russia, in collaboration with the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC), has won the Sentinel Small Sat (S^3) Challenge of the European Space Agency (ESA), the most important category of the Copernicus Masters awards, which have a reputation for being the ‘space Oscars’. The project also received the Overall Winner Award for the best initiative in the Copernicus Masters.

Nov 20, 2017

The project, called Federated satellite system 6U tandem mission for sea ice and soil moisture monitoring (FSSCat), won the award during the celebration of the 2017 European Space Week in Tallinn, Estonia, on 7 November. Participants in the project include the space systems engineering company Deimos Engenharia (the Portuguese branch of the international Elecnor Deimos) and GOMSpace, a Danish manufacturer of small satellite platforms, both of them leaders in their countries.

The project was presented by Adriano Camps, scientific coordinator of the Maria de Maeztu Excellence Unit CommSensLab of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC), and Alessandro Golkar, visiting professor from the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech). It was chosen from a total of 39 projects from all over the world as the best solution in the Sentinel Small Sat (S^3) Challenge, an initiative aimed at promoting a new family of satellites known as sentinels, and at stimulating innovative technologies that facilitate their missions. In the future, these devices may complement or contribute added value to the large European satellite systems developed for Earth observation up to now.

The prize of €1 million, excluding launch costs, will allow the winning team to produce two small satellites carrying scientific equipment. The aim is to measure soil moisture, a crucial variable for agriculture and for calculating fire risks, and to measure ice thickness in the polar regions, a fundamental parameter for maritime navigation and for monitoring climate change. The launch will also be used to experiment with innovative technologies in the Earth’s orbit.

As Overall Winner of the Copernicus Masters, the team will receive a second monetary prize and will be able to attend the forthcoming launch from French Guiana of the ESA’s ADM-Aeolus satellite, which will make wind observations worldwide. In addition, as the initiative is included among the top 50 of the competition, it has been selected for the Copernicus Accelerator programme, which will help turn the project into a reality.

Launch planned for 2019
The first launch is scheduled to be carried out from French Guiana in the first quarter of 2019. Small satellites will collect data on soil moisture, improving the current spatial resolution from 50 to 100 m. This will be done through innovative techniques 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 Elecnor Deimos in Portugal. This technology has been developing for more than 15 years in other ESA missions such as PARIS IoD and the G-TERN Earth Explorer 9 proposal, and in Spanish and European projects such as E-GEM, SenSyF and ONION.

This mission will verify in particular the new concept of ‘federated missions’ shared between several satellites. In this case, the satellites, about the size of a laptop case, will fly in space at an altitude of 450 to 550 km and will be separated from each other by a few hundred kilometres. These small satellites will communicate with each other through optical laser beams, a state-of-the-art technology that allows large volumes of information to be transmitted with less interference than in the current radio links used between satellites. This technology is therefore essential for setting up robust, reliable satellite networks and has so far only been tested with large satellites.

Professor Adriano Camps, who also co-directs the UPC’s NanoSat Lab, says “We are facing a paradigm shift in the ESA’s contracting system. This is clearly a turning point.” Camps considers this award “a clear recognition at the European level of the work that the team has been doing for more than 20 years in the field of remote sensing and for 10 years in the sector of nanosatellites for Earth observation.”

Nuno Ávila, general manager of Elecnor Deimos in Portugal, says “the satellites will work in synergy through an innovative concept called a federated system or a fractional satellite, in which each satellite specialises and performs particular tasks, which are combined to achieve a better overall result. Constellations of small, low-cost satellites can thus be used instead of large, expensive ones. In addition, the risk of mission failure is mitigated because we are not putting all our eggs in the same basket.”
Innovation and experience in nanosatellites
Much of the technology that will be placed in orbit on board these small satellites comes from the experience and technology developed by UPC students and researchers at NanoSat Lab, a laboratory promoted by the University with the support of the IEEC. One of these nanosatellites is 3Cat-2, the first Catalan satellite to be placed in orbit, in August 2016. It carried three experiments on board to demonstrate the feasibility of various techniques and technologies linked to the use of satellite navigation system signals for remote sensing, and to test instrumentation for a future ESA mission.

The following year, a group of 18 students of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees of the UPC was the only Spanish team selected among the six finalists in the second edition of the ESA’s Fly Your Satellite! programme. A nanosatellite also created at the UPC’s NanoSat Lab, largely with its own technology, 3Cat-4, will be used to obtain Earth observation information and is scheduled for launch in 2019.

About the Copernicus programme
Copernicus Masters is one of the actions of Copernicus, the most ambitious programme in the field of Earth observation, headed by the European Commission and the ESA. The aim of the programme is to provide accurate, timely and accessible information to improve the management of the environment, understand and mitigate the effects of climate change, and ensure civil security.

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