NanoRacks-QB50 (NanoRacks-QB50) - 04.05.17

Overview | Description | Applications | Operations | Results | Publications | Imagery

ISS Science for Everyone

Science Objectives for Everyone
The NanoRacks-QB50 project uses the International Space Station to deploy a constellation of 28 CubeSats, from a total of 36, in order to study the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere over a period of 1 to 2 years. This constellation is the result of an international collaboration involving academia and research institutes from 23 different countries around the world. The project, coordinated by the QB50 Consortium, receives funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development. The QB50 satellites conduct coordinated measurements on a poorly studied and previously inaccessible zone of the atmosphere referred to as the thermosphere. The project monitors different gaseous molecules and electrical properties of the thermosphere to better understand space weather and its long-term trends.
Science Results for Everyone
Information Pending

The following content was provided by Amandine Denis, and is maintained in a database by the ISS Program Science Office.
Experiment Details


Principal Investigator(s)
Davide Masutti, Ph.D., Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics, Rhode St-Genèse, Belgium

Robert Wicks, Ph.D., University College London, London, United Kingdom

Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics, Rhode St-Genèse, Belgium
The University of Adelaide, Australia
University of New South Wales, Australia
University of Sydney
Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT), Belgium
Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Belgium
Shaanxi Engineering Laboratory for Microsatellites, Northwestern Polytechnical University, Belgium
Von Karmen Institute, Belgium
U of Alberta, Alberta, Canada
TU Dresden, Germany
E-USOC, ETSIA, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM), Spain
Aalto University, Finland
Ecole Polytechnique, France
Ecole MinesParitech, France
Democratis University of Thrace/ Space Research Lab, Greece
University of Patras, Greece
Herzliya Science Center, Israel
KAIST, South Korea
Seoul National University, South Korea
Technical University of Lulea, Sweden
Open Cosmos, United Kingdom
Istanbul Technical University, Turkey
Havelsan, Turkey
National Cheng Kung University (NCKU), Taiwan
National Technical University of Ukraine , Ukraine
University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, United States
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, United States
Universidad del Turabo, Puerto Rico

Sponsoring Space Agency
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Sponsoring Organization
National Laboratory (NL)

Research Benefits
Earth Benefits, Scientific Discovery, Space Exploration

ISS Expedition Duration
September 2016 - April 2017

Expeditions Assigned

Previous Missions
Information Pending

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Experiment Description

Research Overview

  • NanoRacks-QB50 has the following four objectives that include facilitating access to space, carrying out a scientific measurement campaign with a satellite constellation to probe the middle and lower thermosphere, demonstrating new technologies in orbit, and promoting space engineering and science education.
  • The mid-lower thermosphere (400 km to 200 km altitude) is largely unexplored and only few measurements exist below 300 km altitude. The QB50 project constellation is the first ever mission to target such altitudes with a large number of atmosphere sensors.
  • QB50 offers the opportunity to have multi-point measurements of the thermosphere with a unique space and time resolution.
  • A synchronized data acquisition among the sensors of the constellation allows the observation of fast travelling and small scale waves in the thermosphere.
  • The scientific database is used to validate and enhance global atmosphere models and improve the understanding of physical processes which are taking part in the ionosphere-thermosphere coupling.


The NanoRacks-QB50 mission presents a number of firsts and unique opportunities for the scientific community. The different launch inclinations, altitudes and timings mean that the CubeSats spread out throughout the thermosphere, along the International Space Station (ISS) orbit, and along the proposed Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) launch orbit, providing a widely-spread network of sensors in longitude and latitude. The two differently timed launches from the ISS and the separate PSLV launch also provide a spread in the altitude of the CubeSats. The spread in location and in altitude of the sensors will allow the first ever real-time coordinated study of the thermosphere resolved in space, altitude and time on a global scale.
The QB50 observations can be coordinated with the current cutting edge observations of the thermosphere from the many other sources discussed above. Knowing the orbits of the CubeSats it is possible to time the collection of data using these other techniques.
This has several advantages; the QB50 observations are calibrated against the external observations, the spatial and temporal changes observed by QB50 can be distinguished from one another (the CubeSats travel a distance along their orbit in a given time and so variations in space appear as variations in time in single satellite data, an external data source showing the spatial or temporal changes in a fixed region helps distinguish the two). The mission flies for a period between 12 and 24 months and can thus supply a calibrated monitor of the longer-term changes in the thermosphere, be that seasonal, annual or perhaps related to climate change. If the ideal case of the CubeSats operating continuously can be achieved, then QB50 will provide the longest continual in-situ measurement of the thermosphere.
The QB50 constellation boards a set of science sensors to perform a detailed investigation of the mid-lower thermosphere. Among these sensors are the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), Flux-ϕ Probe EXperiment (FiPEX), and multi Needle Langmuir Probe (m-NLP).
Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS)
The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) is a miniaturized analyzer designed for sampling of low mass ionized and neutral particles in the spacecraft ram direction with the instrument resolutions optimized for resolving the major constituents in the lower thermosphere, i.e., atomic oxygen (O), molecular oxygen (O2), nitrogen monoxide (NO) and nitrogen (N2). The key sensor components consist of a collimator/ion filter, an ionizer and a charged particle spectrometer. Particles enter the aperture into the ion filter region where charged particles can be rejected. This is followed by a series of baffles for collimation and further charged particle suppression. Collimated neutral particles are subsequently ionized in the ionizer by a 50 eV electron beam followed by mass selection in the analyzer. With an energy resolution of 3%, the analyzer provides clean separation of the major constituents. The spectrometer can be operated in different modes, optimized for ions or neutral particle analysis. The INMS science unit operates in a single mode although this mode is largely configurable by script commands from the CubeSat onboard computer depending on the science requested.
Flux-ϕ Probe EXperiment (FIPEX)
The Flux-ϕ Probe EXperiment (FIPEX) in general is able to distinguish and to measure atomic and molecular oxygen at very low ambient pressures (down to 10-10 mbar partial pressure). The objective of the FIPEX on CubeSats version is to measure the time resolved behavior of atomic oxygen flux in-situ in the upper atmosphere and lower thermosphere based on solid oxide electrolyte micro-sensors. Especially the flux of atomic oxygen is of general importance as it shows different interactions with spacecraft surfaces, e.g. erosion of the surface materials. Furthermore, using the atmosphere models, the prediction of total density and the partial pressures in higher latitudes are insufficient. It is well documented in the literature that the main models of the upper thermosphere (e.g. NRLMSISE, DTM, METM) show significant deviations in the prediction of the residual species over time, altitude and longitude of up to 470 percent.
The sensor is based on the amperometric three electrode principle where the electrical current is measured along the electrochemical polarization control on a noble metal ceramic compound heated to approximately 660°C. According to Faradays’ law, this current is proportional to the mass flux by electrolysis. Thus, oxygen is non-dissociative adsorbed and transformed to oxygen ions under a potentiometric-Nernst-principle polarization control. These ions are conducted through the solid electrolyte towards the anode, where they recombine to oxygen molecules. Additionally, a diffusion barrier limits the oxygen flux to the cathode.
If this flux limitation is high enough, the oxygen partial pressure almost vanishes at the cathode. In this particular case, the measured current is limited directly by the diffusion of the oxygen to the cathode and therefore a linear dependence on the oxygen partial pressure is achieved due to the diffusion law. Under low-pressure conditions, e.g. in low-Earth orbit (LEO) the oxygen molecule flux is naturally limited by effusion laws. In order to distinguish the atomic oxygen (AO) from the molecular oxygen (O2) different cathode materials are used.
Multi Needle Langmuir Probe (m-NLP)
The multi Needle Langmuir Probe (m-NLP) works by measuring the current collected individually from four needle probes, placed in front of the satellite's shock front. The collected current is converted to voltage, filtered, digitalized and then sent to the central telemetry (TM) system. By using data from four fixed-bias Langmuir needle probes, sampled at the same time, the plasma electron density can be derived with high time resolution without the need to know the electron temperature and the spacecraft potential. With the selected needle probe design and the estimated electron densities, the instrument is to be capable of measuring currents ranging from 350 pA to 3.8 µA. The m-NLP system consists of one data acquisition PCB, one PCB which acts as the mounting plate for the m-NLPs, one aluminum top plate and an integrated electron emitter.

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Space Applications
QB50 provides data that enhance atmospheric models and improve understanding of how space weather can affect or disrupt radio communications and GPS signals. This research contributes to risk assessment of strong solar events that can damage power grids and space assets (i.e. military, commercial and civil satellites). QB50 furthers understanding of how to manufacture, deploy and use small, distributed sensor technologies of the sort that are becoming more common in space.

Earth Applications
QB50 provides orbital testing of new autonomous technologies and systems that expand space monitoring and communications capabilities. As a nanosatellite constellation with advanced sensor technology, the project contributes to on-going miniaturization efforts necessary for long term space missions and demonstrates how coordinated CubeSat systems can be used to achieve mission goals.

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Operational Requirements and Protocols
NanoRacks CubeSats are delivered to the ISS already integrated within a NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD). A crew member transfers each NRCSD from the launch vehicle to the JEM. Visual inspection for damage to each NRCSD is performed. When CubeSat deployment operations begin, the NRCSDs are unpacked, mounted on the JAXA Multi-Purpose Experiment Platform (MPEP) and placed on the JEM airlock slide table for transfer outside the ISS. A crew member operates the JEM Remote Manipulating System (JRMS) – to grapple and position for deployment. CubeSats are deployed when JAXA ground controllers command a specific NRCSD.

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Decadal Survey Recommendations

Information Pending

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Results/More Information

Information Pending

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Related Websites

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The QB50 mission is made of four segments. Space segment consists of 28 Science CubeSats. Science segment studies the thermosphere. Launch segment features 3 launches and 2 deployment batches from the ISS. Ground segment is a combination of 50 amateur ground stations together with a central data server (DPAC). Image courtesy of VKI.

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QB50 has the following four objectives:  (1) facilitating access to space, (2) carrying out a scientific measurement campaign with a satellite constellation to probe the middle and lower thermosphere, (3) demonstrate new technologies in orbit, and (4) promote space engineering and science education. Image courtesy of VKI.

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Three different types of science sensors are used in QB50 to fulfill the objective of carrying out atmospheric research in the thermosphere (from left to right): the Ion-Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), the Flux-Φ-Probe Experiment (FIPEX) and the multi-Needle Langmuir Probe (m-NLP). Image courtesy of the QB50 Consortium.

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Examples of CubeSats that are part of the QB50 mission. From left to right and top to bottom: Qarman, developed by the Von Karman Institute (Belgium), SNUSAT-1, developed by Seoul National University (South Korea), Aalto-2 developed by Aalto University (Finland), VZLUSAT1 developed by VZLU (Czech Republic), DUTHSat developed by DUTH (Greece) and qbee developed by Lulea University of Technology (Sweden) and Open Cosmos (UK). Image courtesy of the QB50 Consortium.

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