RadCube technology demonstration mission
RadCube (led by C3S with MTA EK in Hungary, Imperial College London in UK, and Astronika in Poland), is a3U CubeSat mission to demonstrate miniaturized instrument technologies that measure in-situ the space radiation and magnetic field environment in Low Earth Orbit for space weather monitoring purposes. The platform developed by C3S (Electronics Development LLC, Budapest, Hungary) will also be demonstrated in flight. The project is currently in the preliminary design phase and planned to be ready for flight in late 2019. 1)
RadCube is an ESA technology demonstration mission performed under the auspices of the GSTP (General Support Technology Program). ESA is increasingly utilizing small ‘CubeSat’ nanosatellites. These are employed for the In-Orbit Demonstration (IOD) of miniaturized technologies and for small payload-driven missions, as well as ESA Education activities. 2)
Figure 1: Illustration of the RadCube CubeSat (image credit: ESA)
Hungary has a long history in space research, in which its accession to the European Space Agency (ESA) Convention was a distinguished milestone. Following the conclusion of the ratification process, the opportunity has emerged to implement a Hungarian microsatellite mission in the frame of ESA’s GSTP. 3)
The joint mission was given the name RadCube to express its primary objective: the real-time monitoring of the cosmic radiation and space weather environment, and visualization of the measurement data for the industry and the public.
On November 2nd 2020, C3S and SAB Launch Services signed the Launch Services Agreement, the first step that in 2021 will fly the 3U CubeSat on the European VEGA launcher for the RadCube mission, a demonstration of onboard miniaturized instrument technologies with the goal to provide real time space weather by making in situ measurements of both the magnetic field environment in LEO and the space radiation to which spacecrafts and astronauts are constantly exposed to. 4)
SAB Launch Services will embark the 3U Satellite on the VEGA VV19 planned next year in the summer of 2021. It is a piggyback mission that is going to bring this satellite on an SSO at an altitude of about 575Km for its scientific mission. — Despite the recent issue on VV17, the teams are working to limit the impact on the VEGA schedule for 2021, in fact along with ESA, Arianespace, AVIO and CNES, SAB-LS is focusing to enable VV18 for February.
VV18 will be the first mission following the Success of the SSMS maiden flight which brought into orbit more than 53 satellites making a success and an important milestone for the access to space.
Launch: The RadCube passenger payload was launched on 17 August 2021 (at 01:47 UTC) as a technology demonstration mission on the Vega SSMS piggyback mission VV19 of Arianespace from Kourou. The primary mission on this flight was Pleiades Neo-4 of CNES/Airbus. 5) 6)
Orbit of secondary payloads: Sun-sunchronous orbit with an altitude of 551 km.
The 19th mission of Europe’s Vega light launcher also injected four CubeSats on a sun-synchronous orbit, three for the European Space Agency (ESA) and one for the French start-up Unseenlabs. The three ESA payloads were under contract with SAB Launch Services. In order to meet their clients’ needs and to ensure them a quicker access to Space, Arianespace and SAB Launch Services set up a collaboration to integrate all four auxiliary passengers in two PSL6U Deployers installed on the Payload Adapter.
• LEDSAT, a 1U CubeSat of Sapienza University of Rome, Italy.
• RadCube, a 3U CubeSat from C3S, Hungary, to demonstrate miniaturized instrument technologies that measure in-situ the space radiation and magnetic field environment in Low Earth Orbit for space weather monitoring purposes.
• SUNSTORM, a 3U CubeSat from RSL, Finland, with an innovative solar X-ray spectrometer to detect the X-ray pulses produced by coronal mass ejections – massive eruptions of many millions of tons of material from the Sun’s surface.
• BRO-4, the fourth 6U CubeSat from Unseenlabs, France, of the constellation BRO (Breizh Reconnaissance Orbiter), a spectrum monitoring and electromagnetic intelligence service for maritime surveillance.
• December 21, 2021: The commissioning phase of the C3S RadCube 3U CubeSat has been successfully completed — the platform developed by C3S has been operating since its launch on August 17, 2021, and RadCube has performed flawlessly under the extreme conditions of the space environment. 7)
- After launch, the solar panels opened and the electrical power system properly charged the battery — voltage and temperature are also stable. As indicated by the continuously downlinked telemetry data, the power switches of the subsystems operate well, and the thermal conditions of the subsystems are also nominal.
- Due to the communication between the On-board Computer (OBC) and the Mission Operations Center, we receive the telemetry data several times per day when the satellite passes over the ground station in Budapest. One of the commissioning phase’s milestones was the deployment of the boom that allowed the performance of scientific experiments 80 cm away from the satellite which, in this manner, minimizes its magnetic field.
- Following the deployment, the first measurement data arrived. Even before all of this, we had started the collection of the housekeeping data of the primary scientific payload RadMag that was developed by the Centre for Energy Research. Approaching the end phase of the commissioning schedule, the activation of the instrument has been fully completed. During commissioning, the radiation unit of RadMag already recorded the effects of a space weather event. C3S is the prime member of the ESA’s RadCube consortium and, in addition to holding the project together and adding technological value, its activity encompasses the entire lifecycle of the mission from mission planning, system engineering, platform design & development, through tests and simulations to the arrangement of the launch. Furthermore, its in-house developed Mission Operation Centre and ground stations support the satellite’s operation after launch.
- In addition to the Hungarian Center for Energy Research, which is responsible for the space radiation environment monitoring payload, further members of the consortium are the Imperial College of London that developed the magnetometer payload, Astronika from Poland, which is liable for the boom mechanism and ESA that provided the secondary payload to characterize space radiation effects on computer memory chips. Spanish DHV Technologies delivered the solar panels, while the Belgian KU Leuven provided the Attitude Determination and Control System (ADCS).
- RadCube is the sixth smallsat launched in LEO for technology on-orbit demonstration purposes within the ESA’s General Support Technology Program (GSTP). The European Space Agency has brought several projects to life in recent years with the purpose of exploiting the immense and diverse potential of smallsats. RadCube was funded from the GSTP contributions of Hungary, Poland and United Kingdom.
• November 11, 2021: ESA’s latest CubeSat – RadCube, for surveying space weather in low-Earth orbit – has completed its rigorous commissioning phase, culminating in the extension of a magnetometer boom longer than the miniature satellite itself. 8)
- The surface of Earth is a rare low-radiation oasis, largely protected from the charged particles riddling space by our planet’s magnetic field. RadCube is a mission to demonstrate miniaturized technologies for measuring this space radiation environment as well as magnetic field strength – all within a satellite that could fit into an aircraft carry-on bag.
- CubeSats are satellites assembled from standardized 10-cm boxes. RadCube is a 3U CubeSat, newly developed for ESA by C3S in Hungary.
- Hungary’s Centre for Energy Research (EK) contributed the payload controller system and a radiation telescope to the mission, combining two detectors to measure the direction as well as energy of charged particles. The UK’s Imperial College built a magnetometer consisting of two sensors, one within the CubeSat and another at the end of a rolled-out 80 cm boom, which comes from Astronika in Poland.
- Launched aboard ESA’s Vega launcher flight VV19 in August, RadCube also hosts an ESA experiment to test the resilience of computer memories against space radiation.
- “The all-new CubeSat platform and the precision of RadCube’s miniature instruments demanded a complex commissioning process, which has now been successfully completed” explains Dorottya Milánkovich from C3S.
Figure 2: The latest in a series of ESA Technology CubeSats to demonstrate promising technologies for space, RadCube was supported through the ‘Fly’ element of ESA’s General Support Technology Program (GSTP), with funding coming from Hungary, the UK and Poland (image credit: C3S)
- “The full extension of the magnetometer boom marked a dramatic final milestone; this is a necessary feature to prevent any anomalous magnetic measurements emitted from the satellite itself,” says Dominik Nolbert from Astronika.
- Jonathan Eastwood from Imperial College adds: “In fact, the outboard magnetometer data clearly shows no magnetic noise coming from RadCube, with results well in line with expected values from Earth magnetic field models.”
- “RadCube’s radiation measurements are also showing good comparison data with other satellites, revealing elevated radiation levels from the recent solar storm.” highlights Attila Hirn from EK.
Sensor complement (RadMag, MAGIC)
RadMag is a compact and adaptable cosmic radiation and magnetic field instrument package designed by MTA-EK (Hungary) together with ICL (UK) and Astronika (Poland), it will fly as primary payload on RadCube. 9)
MAGIC (MAGnetometer from imperial College)
MAGIC is a vector magnetometer built around magnetoresistive sensors, which will be used to measure the magnetic field and monitor magnetospheric space weather via the detection of field aligned currents and changes in the magnetic field. MAGIC is part of RadMag, a compact instrument suite led by EK (Hungary) which also consists of energetic particle detectors. MAGIC will be deployed by means of a tape spring motorized boom provided by Astronika (Poland). 10)
The mission is currently in Phase D, with MAGIC EQM model just delivered to Hungary for integration test with the RadMag instrument suite.
Intern develops software for ESA space experiment
A student interning at ESA will soon see her work launched into space. Meadhbh Griffin of University College Dublin (UCD) has spent the last five months writing and testing software for an experiment set to fly later this year on the Hungarian-led RadCube CubeSat. While its main mission is to probe space weather in Earth orbit, RadCube will also host a miniature experiment to test how commercial computer memories withstand space radiation. 11)
“I’ve been hugely lucky to get a chance to work on something that will actually be going into orbit,” says 23-year-old Meadhbh.
“Working on flight software means you’re thinking about what you’re doing the entire time, because there’s no room for error: as I went I was always asking myself ‘what if something goes wrong here?’.”
Meadhbh took her undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering at National University of Ireland, Galway then began her Master’s in Space Science and Technology at UCD: “For part of the course we take an internship, and I was encouraged to apply to ESA. I was offered a place in the Agency’s Flight Software Systems section at the ESTEC technical centre in the Netherlands. There were a variety of projects I could have worked on, but it was the one involving space hardware that I jumped at.”
Figure 3: CHIMERA payload boards. ESA's RadCube mission will also host this miniature experiment to test how commercial computer memories withstand space radiation: a pair of electronics boards, compact enough to fit into the available 80 cm3 of space with 12 samples of computer SRAM memories (image credit: ESA)
Meadbh’s project involves RadCube, the latest of ESA’s Technology CubeSats, which is due to fly on a Vega launcher this August. RadCube – led for ESA by led by Hungary’s C3S with MTA EK, Imperial College in the UK and Astronika in Poland – will employ miniaturized instruments to measure the space radiation and magnetic field environments in low Earth orbit.
Built up from three standard CubeSat 10-cm boxes, this 3U RadCube is only the size of a shoebox, but enough spare volume was found for an additional ‘guest’ payload, provided by ESA.
“We decided to embark our third CHIMERA experiment, the first of which flew aboard the GomX-4B CubeSat in 2018, and the second aboard the International Space Station the following year,” explains Tomasz Szewczyk, ESA On-Board Computers & Data Handling Engineer.
“With interest strong in making space missions cheaper, following eased use of ‘commercial off the shelf’ parts, we want to see how well ordinary computer memories stand up to space conditions.”
Figure 4: CHIMERA master board. Along with an accompanying slave board, the payload tests the resilience against radiation of 12 separate computer SRAM memories in space (image credit: ESA)
The result is a pair of electronics boards, compact enough to fit into the available 80 cm3 of space with 12 samples of SRAM memories.
Space radiation is known to scramble computer brains, building up into the equivalent of dementia. Incoming charged particles can ‘flip’ memory bits, known as single event upsets, or even trigger a small scale version of a short circuit, called a ‘latch up’.
“With CHIMERA we start by painting the memories with a specific pattern, then the software periodically reads them, looking for changes or the increased current characteristic of latch ups,” adds Meadbh.
“Detected radiation effects are then reported to the RadMag, RadCube’s main mission payload, for downlink to Earth. The software needs to make this happens reliably and fast, on minimal power, around 100 mW, with control software squeezed to fit into CHIMERA’s two 8-bit microcontrollers.”
Adding to the challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic meant Meadbh had to do much of her software writing and testing remotely, using a laptop with replica boards attached.
“I had previous experience working on one of the payloads of the Irish CubeSat mission EIRSAT-1 at UCD, but was given much greater responsibility with CHIMERA.”
Another experiment was added to this CHIMERA board, explains ESA Software Engineer Piotr Skrzypek, which also needed overseeing: “A pair of Ultra Wide Band wireless modules, contributed by Romanian company CDS, will exchange data packets across a short distance. In the future similar modules might be embedded within satellites to gather environmental data such as internal temperature variations.”
Returning to UCD to complete her MSc, Meadbh, was awarded the Julie McEnery medal – named for a NASA astrophysicist – for coming top of her class. Looking forward, she hopes to return to ESTEC one day: “This has been exactly the kind of project I’d like to work on in my professional career; it’s been a great experience.”
1) ”RadCube,” ESA, 15 November 2017, URL: https://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Images/2017/11/RadCube
2) ”Technology CubeSats,” ESA, URL: https://www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/Space_Engineering_Technology/Technology_CubeSats
4) ”The RadCube Mission to fly with VEGA VV19,” SAB Launch Services, 23 November 2020, URL: https://www.sab.srl/news/the-radcube-mission-to-fly-with-vega-vv19/
5) ”19th Vega mission demonstrates Arianespace’s ability to deliver for the most innovative projects for the benefits of its clients,” Arianespace Press Release, 17 August 2021, URL: https://www.arianespace.com/press-release/vv19-vega-launch-success/
6) ”Vega launches Pléiades Neo and CubeSats,” ESA Enabling & Support, 17 August 2021, URL: https://www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/
7) ”C3S’ RadCube Successfully Commissioned,” Satnews, 17 December 2021, URL: https://news.satnews.com/2021/12/17/c3s-radcube-successfully-commissioned/
8) ”RadCube reaches out,” ESA Enabling & Support, 11 November 2021, URL: https://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Images/2021/11/RadCube_reaches_out
9) Chiara Palia, Jonathan P. Eastwood, Patrick Brown, Henry Eshbaugh, Timithy Oddy, ”Implementation of RadMag instrument package for space weather monitoring on RadCube mission,” CubeSat Industry Days, 4-6 June 2019,
10) ”RadCube,” ICL (Imperial College London), 2021, URL: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/
11) ”Intern develops software for ESA space experiment,” ESA Enabling & Support, 18 March 2021, URL: https://www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/Space_Engineering_Technology
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).