Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

Big Research with Small Satellites

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
January 28, 2021
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Artist’s impression of the SOMP2b satellite. (Credit: TU Dresden/Tino Schmiel)
  • On January 24, 2021, the SOMP2b small satellite was launched into space with a Falcon 9 rocket at 4:00 p.m. Central European Time.
  • A key objective of the mission is to demonstrate that significant research can be done with small satellites.
  • The special thing about SOMP2b is its innovative design: almost all functions of a satellite have been miniaturized and built into each individual side wall.

+++ The SOMP2b satellite launched into space on January 24, 2021 on board a Falcon 9 rocket +++

COLOGNE (DLR PR) — On January 24, 2021, the SOMP2b small satellite is scheduled to launch at 4 p.m. Central European Time (10 a.m. local time) with a Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral spaceport in Florida (USA). A key objective of the mission is to demonstrate that significant research – both scientific and technological – can be done with small satellites. 

“Two of the greatest advantages of small satellites are the relatively short preparation times and the low costs for development, but also for launch,” explains Markus Wagener, head of the small satellite program in the space management of the German Aerospace Center (DLR). On board the SOMP2b satellite of the Technical University of Dresden there will be three experiments for atmospheric research and testing of space technology. In addition to SOMP2b, the Falcon-9 rocket will also bring the small satellite PIXL-1 into orbit with the DLR laser terminal OSIRIS4CubeSat / CubeLCT.

New design for more safety and additional payload capacity

Only 10x10x20 centimeters tall and two kilograms is the SOMP2b-satellite (Student On-Orbit Measurement Project Number 2b). 

“At an altitude of around 500 kilometers, it will orbit the earth for at least two years, going through 16 sunrises and sunsets a day,” explains Professor Martin Tajmar, head of the Institute for Aerospace at TU Dresden. “The TEG experiment on board the satellite takes advantage of this fact: It tests a newly developed material that converts temperature fluctuations into electrical energy.” 

Another experiment, FIPEXnano, will measure the pressure in the thermosphere. These data are important for improving atmospheric models and predicting climate change. With CIREX, the scientists want to test materials for innovative films that offer protection against high-energy particle radiation and that will be used in space technology in the future,

Launch of the small satellites in space. (Credit: Exolaunch GmbH)

The special thing about SOMP2b is its innovative design: almost all functions of a satellite have been miniaturized and built into each individual side wall. This means that all four side walls are designed the same, and three substitute functions are available if a function fails. Thanks to this structure, the interior of the satellite also offers space for scientific experiments. If this novel structure proves itself, subsequent satellite developments can benefit from it in the future.

Pico satellites have the dimensions of a brick

The possibilities for miniaturizing components are continuously improving – and there are increasing opportunities to build very small payloads. As a result, satellites can also be kept surprisingly compact. “We are talking about mini satellites that are only the size of a normal refrigerator, but also of pico satellites with the dimensions of a brick,” explains Markus Wagener. “The federal government’s university small satellite program currently comprises over 20 projects in various stages, from the initial concept to the completion of a complete mission.”

The demand for the funding of small satellite projects is very high, both from scientific and application-oriented areas such as earth observation and satellite communication, as well as from the technology sector. This benefits from the fact that new materials, parts and components can be tested for their suitability in space with the help of compact satellites after a relatively short preparation period of two to three years. The low launch costs of the small satellites are also attractive, because the price for transport with a launcher is calculated based on weight.

Students involved in development and construction

The SOMP2b satellite was developed and built by students, doctoral candidates and scientists from the Institute for Aerospace Technology at TU Dresden. The FIPEXnano sensor was developed by the TU Dresden in cooperation with industrial companies on behalf of the University College London (UCL). The satellite and science are funded by DLR Space Administration with funds from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) as well as by ESA, the EU and industry.