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With only five weeks to go until launch, the picosatellite PICASSO, aimed at Earth observation and space science as the first CubeSat mission of the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, has been delivered to the European Space Agency (ESA) and was successfully integrated into its launch dispenser. PICASSO will be one of 42 tiny satellites launched simultaneously aboard an Arianespace Vega rocket on the 24th of March 2020, from ESA’s launch site in French Guiana. Carrying along two scientific instruments, PICASSO will measure the ozone distribution in the stratosphere, estimate the temperature profile up to the mesosphere, and characterise the plasma in the ionosphere.


PICASSO stands for PICo-Satellite for Atmospheric and Space Science Observations. In the class of small satellites (satellites with masses smaller than 500kg), picosatellites are a category of satellites with a mass between 0.1 and a few kg. The CubeSat design is made up of multiple 10 cm × 10 cm × 10 cm cubic units - in the case of PICASSO, three units - for a total mass of 3.5 kg. These low-cost satellites open opportunities for small companies, research institutions, and universities for carrying out research in space relatively easily.

PICASSO will be launched on the first Vega rideshare flight -the first Vega mission after the launch failure of VV15 last year- to finally orbit the Earth in a quasi-polar orbit at an altitude ranging from 522 to 538 km, with an inclination of 98°. It will be operational for one to two years before burning up naturally in the atmosphere - long enough to prove its technological readiness and scientific potential.

PICASSO CubeSat just before its integration in the Picosatellite Orbital Deployer.
Last view on the PICASSO CubeSat before its integration in the Picosatellite Orbital Deployer © Roger Walker (ESA)

ESA In-Orbit Demonstration mission

Satellites in a low orbit around the Earth are essential to study and observe the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale. If we can prove with PICASSO that such measurements can also be carried out with very small satellites, it would mean a huge step forward in remote sensing techniques for atmospheric research.

"The PICASSO mission will demonstrate that CubeSats have reached the technological maturity necessary to turn them into actual scientific tools worth consideration by the Earth Observation community," says Project Manager Didier Pieroux.

Integration of the PICASSO CubeSat in the Picosatellite Orbital Deployer.
Integration of the PICASSO CubeSat in the Picosatellite Orbital Deployer © Roger Walker (ESA)

Scientific objectives

PICASSO carries two scientific instruments with very distinct scientific goals: the Visible Spectral Imager for Occultation and Nightglow (VISION) and the Sweeping Langmuir Probe (SLP).

VISION (PI: Didier Fussen) is a miniaturized imaging spectrometer for atmospheric remote sensing, built by VTT Finland. Its camera will measure the visible light of the Sun (from 430 to 800 nm), as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere during sunrise and sunset, in order to retrieve the vertical distribution of ozone in the stratosphere. By tracking the deformation of the solar image by atmospheric refraction, VISION will also be able to determine the temperature profile throughout the terrestrial stratosphere and mesosphere.

SLP (PI: Sylvain Ranvier) consists of four needle-like Langmuir probes. The tiny electric currents picked up by these probes will be used to retrieve the electron density and temperature in the local environment. Its main objectives are to gain insight into the magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling and auroras.

PICASSO is the result of an international collaboration, led by the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB), and including AAC Clyde Space Ltd (United Kingdom), ESA (European Space Agency), VTT Technical Research Center (Finland) and the Centre Spatial de Liège (Belgium).
PICASSO was funded by the In-Orbit Demonstration element of ESA’s General Support Technology Programme (GSTP), by the National Lottery and by the Federal Science Policy, BELSPO.

An enthusiastic PICASSO team at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy.
The enthusiastic PICASSO team at the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy © BIRA-IASB


(FR) Dr. Didier Pieroux, PICASSO Project Manager, 02 37 30 421
(FR) Dr. Didier Fussen, Principal Investigator VISION, 02 37 30 371
(FR) Dr. Sylvain Ranvier, Principal Investigator SLP, 02 37 30 373
(NL) Dr. Ir. Johan De Keyser, Head of the Space Physics department, 02 37 30 368
(NL) Dr. Karolien Lefever, Head of the Communication department,, 02 37 30 450

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PICASSO will observe the upper layers of the Earth atmosphere. © BIRA-IASB
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The golden CubeSat PICASSO. Image courtesy: AAC Clyde Space