Multi-point, in-situ measurements of the lower thermosphere

QB50 - using satellites to probe the middle and lower thermosphere

The Earth's atmosphere has five primary layers, the Exosphere, the Thermosphere, the Mesosphere, the Stratosphere and the troposphere. These layers protect our planet by absorbing harmful radiation. Previously, monitoring of the thermosphere has been prohibitively expensive due to the cost of the number of satellites needed and the relatively low orbital lifetime. The QB50 project was created to test the viability of a constellation of 50 low cost cubesats with three different scientific payloads to provide this monitoring. 

In order for this quantity of payloads to be developed and satellites to be built, the project sought to combine the expertise of 15 separate universities and institutions around the world.

Scientific payloads for the monitoring of oxygen

Each CubeSat in the QB50 project had specific scientific instruments and payloads onboard to measure parameters like temperature, pressure, density, composition, and electrical fields. By deploying a network of 50 CubeSats, the project aimed to gather data simultaneously from multiple locations around the globe, providing a comprehensive understanding of the lower thermosphere and its variations. The QB50 monoatomic oxygen payload, Fipex, was designed to monitor the oxygen levels in the upper atmosphere. The awarding University, the Lulea University of Technology of Sweden (LTU) worked with Open Cosmos to design a 2U cubesat, equipped with sensors which would transmit data to the ground station. 

Open Cosmos was able to share their experience and expertise in this sector with students at the University to develop their knowledge, and in exchange, were given access to the lab facilities in order for them to build the satellite.

Completion of the build was incredibly rapid, from contract signature in December of 2015 to the satellite delivery in March the following year. The satellite was built and tested on site, and the launch was arranged at the International Space Station in May 2017. Transfer of operation of the satellite to the University was then completed once the satellite was successfully placed into orbit.

After two years in orbit, the satellite began to naturally decay and re-entered the atmosphere in February 2019, burning up completely without reaching the ground.

For Open Cosmos, one of the key success factors of this project was the ability to train a number of individuals in the design and build of satellites, many of whom are still working within the industry today.

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