Wee Glaswegian satellites set to fly in late 2019

2 May 2019

Glasgow-based Alba Orbital announces first picosatellite launch

In early April 2019, Glasgow based satellite company Alba Orbital announced that their first “PocketQube” picosatellite launch will occur in late 2019. The Alba Cluster 2 mission is a rideshare agreement between Rocket Lab, Alba Orbital and several PocketQube developers from around the globe.

Operating out of the old police barracks building on the Clyde’s south bank, Alba Orbital is the world’s largest PocketQube developer and is leading the charge to get miniature satellites into space. They have developed the world’s smallest active pointing system (ADCS) for their Unicorn-2 units that ensures the satellite is always facing the right direction.

By creating and launching tiny, affordable satellites, they’re hoping to get more types of people involved in the space sector.

Seán Cusick, head of business development at Alba Orbital, said: “PocketQubes are a type of picosatellite [that follow] the ideas of the mobile phone industry’s miniaturisation of technology. These PocketQubes are pocket sized, with the smallest being 5cm by 5cm by 5cm cubes and the largest being 5cm by 5cm by 15cm.”

These powerful spacecraft that you can hold in the palm of your hand have many potential uses. Earth observation and imagery, ship and plane tracking, and financial applications like authorising crypto currency transactions are all potential PocketQube use-cases.

Cusick said: “In addition to building PocketQubes, we also help the PocketQube community by aggregating launches. Instead of paying hundreds of thousands of euros to send your satellite into space we do it for €25,000.”

The launch will send seven of the little satellites into orbit on a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle.

Some of the satellites launching in Alba Cluster 2.

In a press release announcing the launch, Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck, said: “The satellites of today are getting smaller, doing more and costing less to build, but until now it has been a challenge for them to get to orbit. By partnering with Alba Orbital for a rideshare on a Rocket Lab Electron, these small but mighty payloads will get to orbit faster.”

Alba Orbital’s AlbaPod deployer on the Rocket Lab Electron baseplate. Photograph: Alba Orbital

Among the satellites launching this year will be two of Alba Orbital’s Unicorn-2 spacecraft which were purchased by a US based startup, Stara Space. Stara Space plan to use the satellites to demonstrate the potential for encrypted communication between satellites in low Earth orbit.

The Unicorn-2 satellite with solar panels and “unicorn horn” antenna deployed. Photograph: Taylor McDaniel

Pennsylvania based company, Mini-Cubes, is also launching their 5cm PocketQube, Discovery, in the Alba Cluster 2.

Tracey Craft from Mini-Cubes said: “If Discovery is successful, we intend to create a cluster of these satellites specifically to monitor Earth’s water resources. We see water as the biggest at-risk resource and getting a complete picture of how and where water is present as well as how it moves from place to place is a priority.”

Discovery flight model with test launch pod. Photograph: Mini-Cubes

PocketQubes are helping make the space industry more accessible to more people. Cusick stressed that Alba Orbital wants to “democratise access to space.”

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