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PICASSO: The Golden Satellite

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Led by the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, the ESA-backed mission PICASSO (PICo-Satellite for Atmospheric and Space Science Observations) successfully launched its gold-plated satellite on an Arianespace Vega rocket in September 2020. The two onboard instruments serve as successful proofs-of-concept for providing scientific measurements delivered using CubeSat technology.
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PICASSO is a 3U CubeSat mission originated and led by BIRA-IASB in collaboration with VTT Technical Research Center of Finland Ltd, AAC Clyde Space Ltd. (UK), and the CSL (Centre Spatial de Liège), Belgium. The CubeSat, built and integrated by AAC Clyde Space in Scotland, was delivered to ESA last year and then integrated into the launch pod at a facility in Delft. It was launched from Kourou (French Guiana) as a passenger payload on board the Arianespace Vega SSMS (Small Spacecraft Mission Service) Proof Of Concept flight on September 3rd, 2020 (Belgian time).

The PICASSO CubeSat weighs 3.8 kg and is currently flying above the Earth in a polar orbit at an altitude of 535 km and an inclination of 97.51º, enabling nearly full global coverage.

AAC Clyde Space operates a ground station at their headquarters in Glasgow, which serves as the location for PICASSO mission operations. The ground station tracks the satellite and is set up for autonomous up/downlink operations to maximize the use of passes.

The commissioning of the two onboard scientific instruments is currently ongoing; once they are operational, PICASSO will be capable of providing scientific measurements of the Earth’s atmosphere.

  • VISION, proposed by BIRA-IASB and developed by VTT, will retrieve vertical profiles of ozone and temperature by observing the Earth's atmospheric limb during orbital Sun occultation
  • SLP, developed by BIRA-IASB, will measure in situ plasma density and electron temperature together with the spacecraft potential (Ranvier et al. 2019). For the latter, the spacecraft surface must be electrically conducting, hence the gold finishing.

Serving as a groundbreaking proof-of-concept, the PICASSO mission has taught valuable lessons about the advantages of CubeSat technology as well as its many complexities and challenges.

 

References:

Ranvier, S., Anciaux, M., De Keyser, J., Pieroux, D., Baker, N., and Lebreton, J.-P. (2019). SLP: The Sweeping Langmuir Probe Instrument to Monitor the Upper Ionosphere on Board the PICASSO Nano-Satellite. 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Washington D.C., United States, 21-25 October 2019, Paper ID 53780.

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The PICASSO team at BIRA-IASB (Credit: BIRA-IASB)