Two local CubeSats part of European QB50 project

December 6th, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT


Two South African built CubeSats are due for launch from the international space station in January 2017 as part of the QB50 project. They are ZA-AeroSat from the University of Stellenbosch and nSight from the SCS Aerospace Group.

The QB50 project will fill a gap in the study of the region below the ionosphere. Space agencies are not pursuing a multi-spacecraft network for in situ measurements in the lower thermosphere because the cost of a network of 50 satellites built to industrial standards would be extremely high and not justifiable in view of the limited orbital lifetime. No atmospheric network mission for in-situ measurements has been carried out in the past or is currently planned for the future. A network of satellites for in situ measurements in the lower thermosphere can only be realised by using very low-cost satellites, and CubeSats are a realistic option.

Henrik Burger CEO of SCS Space (left) with Lourens Visagie, systems engineer on the NSight CubeSat project.

Henrik Burger CEO of SCS Space with Lourens Visagie, systems engineer on the NSight CubeSat project.

ZA-AeroSat and nSight were transported to Delft in the Netherlands for packing with other satellites before being shipped to the USA awaiting transport to the International Space Station (ISS).

Prof. Herman Steyn, head of the ZA-AeroSat project and founder of CubeSpace, said that CubeSpace and the Electronic Systems Laboratory (ESL) in the University of Stellenbosch Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, have been working on this local nanosatellite for some time.

Since the ESL and, more recently, CubeSpace, are already widely recognised internationally for innovative small satellite orientation control systems, they were also asked to supply 15 control units (altitude determination and control systems (ADCSs)) to other satellites in the QB50 project. It’s a huge challenge to keep a satellite within 10° of the orbiting direction, he explained.

The control units, fully developed within the ESL, together with some of the control system software developed with the Surrey Space Centre in England, were sent to the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in Belgium for distribution to the selected project participants. The first three control units were delivered to Innovative Solutions in Space, a satellite company in the Netherlands, early in 2014, which launched two QB50 satellites as a test run before the QB50 mission was announced in May 2014. The control units have successfully been operating in space on these test satellites for more than two years now. The funding received for these control units helped to sponsor ZA-AeroSat.


The ZA-AeroSat.

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) was involved in the development of the satellite’s communication modules. Steyn said that ZA‐AeroSat will also be used to demonstrate the aerodynamic stabilisation of a satellite in practical terms for the first time. The antennas at the back of the satellite will be used like the feathers of a shuttlecock to give the satellite partial passive stability. This will be made possible by the greater atmospheric density in the low orbiting heights of QB50.

The CubeSat components are also sold internationally online. A newly developed experimental star camera satellite sensor (CubeStar), weighing only 80 g, will be flown to qualify it for use in space. An experimental gravitational wave sensor is also testing whether gravitational wave distortions caused by, for example, the position of the sun and the moon relative to the earth, can be determined.

The second South Africa CubeSat to be launched as part of the QB50 project is nSight which is managed by SCS Aerospace Group, South Africa’s biggest private satellite concern. This involvement will showcase South Africa’s ability in the space industry. Almost all the systems and components on this satellite were manufactured and assembled within six months with South African partners.

SCS Space is a subsidiary of SCS Aerospace Group and is the prime contractor for the satellite. The platform showcases the space technology abilities of all the other South African stakeholders who made this project possible. Participants in the project are the Space Advisory Company, University of Stellenbosch, CubeSpace, CPUT, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), Pinkmatter Solutions, AMSAT SA and NewSpace Systems.

Apart from conducting the European Commission’s lower thermosphere experiments, the nanosatellite nSight1, which weighs only 2,5 kg will also test the company’s newly developed SCS Gecko Imager as well as NMMUs patented ‘Radiation Mitigation VHDL Coding Technique, during its six to 18 month flight.

The nSight1 mission is a joint investment by SCS Aerospace Group and Pinkmatter Solutions and forms part of a line of satellites to establish space heritage for a new generation of high performance remote sensing cameras. The camera technology being tested on the nSight1 nanosatellite was developed with initial support from the South African Department of Trade and Industry’s AISI programme.

The satellite was designed, integrated and tested by engineers from the Space Advisory Company (SAC), another member of SCS Aerospace Group. SAC is a satellite systems engineering company with thousands of man-hour practical satellite engineering experience in the global satellite market. The satellite was assembled in the clean room of NewSpace Systems, a South African spacecraft component manufacturer. NewSpace Systems employs only European Space Agency (ESA) certified technicians in their ISO 7 class clean room, a unique facility on the African continent.

The two CubeSats will use amateur radio satellite frequencies. The details can be found on

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