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ESA’s OPS-SAT

Artist_s_impression_of_OPS-SAT_articleOPS-SAT is a CubeSat (small form factor satellite based upon 10CM cube-shaped modules) launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) late in 2019. Its mission: demonstrate improvements in mission control capabilities based on a cheaper, more capable (in terms of computing power) satellite platform. Even though only a 3U CubeSat measuring (exclusive of solar panels) only 96 mm × 96 mm × 290 mm (3.8 in × 3.8 in × 11.4 in) and weighing in at only 7 kg (15.4 lbs.), OPS-SAT  delivers impressive capabilities: its experimental computer is 10X more powerful than any current ESA spacecraft.

Such computational power in such a tiny package enables a lot of innovation. Space agencies have traditionally been relatively conservative when it comes to the pace of innovation, This is understandable: space vehicles and missions are expensive to plan and deploy. During the Space Shuttle era, the average NASA mission cost was $450M. This has rapidly decreased over the last 13 years. Cost per pound to put something into orbit was $10K then. Today, SpaceX is advertising $2.5K per pound.

 

OPS-SATsizeAs can be seen from the image at the left, OPS-SAT is really small, making it feasible to share the cost of boosting a satellite into space with many other users, substantially reducing mission costs. More specifically, tiny satellites like OPS-SAT represent much less financial risk. Larger ESA satellites can cost up to €60M to put in orbit. OPS-SAT cost only €1.4M.

Beyond lower financial risk, OPS-SAT is so robust, it can literally be rebooted if necessary to recover from an error. It’s actually a satellite within a satellite. Control can be swapped between the two and they monitor each other. This degree of robustness allows real time experimentation on critical control functions during flight.

7 years in development, it’s the first nanosatellite to be directly owned by ESA and controlled by ESA/ESOC. Its high-powered 800 MHz processor allows “normal” software (Linux, JAVA, and Python) to control the satellite. Firmware can also be upgraded during flight.

OPS-SAT’s uplink is 4 xs higher than any other ESA spacecraft. Uplinks of up to 50 mb/sec are possible on RF links. It has a laser receiver, which should be capable of even higher uplink and downlink speeds.

It’s also designed to be open in order to encourage innovation. Experiment uploads were encouraged for corporations, academic institutions and even individuals. More information about registering to become a part of the OPS-SAT community and for instructions about how to submit software for approved registration is available at: https://opssat1.esoc.esa.int/. Further information about testing, uploading and running software are also available there. Experimentation on OPS-SAT is available at no cost until November, 2021.

The OPS-SAT program is innovative in both its approach to satellite hardware AND it’s organization to encourage innovation by many stakeholders. As of mid-December, 2020, 153 experiments had been registered with the OPS-SAT community.

We will continue looking into the OPS-SAT program by looking at one of its first successful experiments involving DTN. We’ll follow that with a profile of the company behind that experiment: D3TN. More coming soon…

Some short, introductory YouTube videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbW8o1tk_Mc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uEvGfipmAw

 

 

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