ESA’s Pioneer mission sends GNSS-RO nanosatellites into orbit

December 3, 2018  - By

News from the European Space Agency (ESA)

Two tiny GNSS-RO nanosatellites now circle the Earth, ready for action. The first European Pioneer mission lifted off Nov. 29 from Sriharikota, India, to put the satellites into orbit.

One of Spire's Satellite Manufacturing Technicians (Tomasz Chanusiak) tests the Radio Frequency capabilities of a LEMUR2 nanosatellite in Spire's cleanroom in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo: ESA)

One of Spire’s Satellite Manufacturing Technicians (Tomasz Chanusiak) tests the Radio Frequency capabilities of a LEMUR2 nanosatellite in Spire’s cleanroom in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo: ESA)

The shoebox-sized satellites were launched at 04:27 GMT into low Earth orbit by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s PLSV launcher, and opened their first communication windows with their owner, Spire Global, less than an hour after they separated from the rocket.

Both satellites were developed under ESA’s ARTES Pioneer programme, and will aim to prove the value of using nanosats for space-based GNSS Radio Occultation (GNSS-RO).

GNSS-RO. GNSS-RO is the process of using satellites to measure how GNSS signals are refracted by the Earth’s atmosphere. Experts can use these measurements to glean temperature, pressure and humidity information for weather forecasting and climate change monitoring.

In contrast, weather data gathered by weather balloons and aircraft can only reach certain altitudes, leaving the higher atmospheric layers untouched.

Satellites have no such restrictions. They can gather massive amounts of this data from the ground up to the mesosphere as they fly over the Earth. This is usually done by large satellites. Spire’s nanosatellites weigh just 5 kg each, and were assembled and tested entirely by Spire in under three months, at their headquarters in Glasgow, Scotland.

Named “Space as a Service,” the Spire Pioneer mission intends to prove that nanosat GNSS-RO is a commercially viable alternative to traditional methods.


Two nanosatellites built by Spire Global were launched into low Earth orbit Nov. 29. (Photo: ISRO)

The two tiny satellites will collect and distribute GNSS-RO data during their commissioning phase, after which they will go into full commercial data production mode, gathering weather information for meteorological institutions, maritime and aviation customers on demand.

ESA’s Pioneer initiative partners with companies like Spire to help them provide this kind of in-orbit demonstration and validation for third parties.

“We saw a gap in the market for what we call space mission providers: companies that offer all aspects of a space mission to validate a new technology or service for the benefit of others,” said ESA Pioneer Programme Manager Khalil Kably. “ESA is always looking to champion innovation in the space industry, and the idea of Pioneer is that these space mission providers can help this by being a one-stop shop for in-orbit demonstration and therefore reduce the barriers and complexity that can stifle new ideas.”

“Spire has been focused on developing unique data sources with high frequency updates for the entire Earth and has over 60 LEMUR-2 class satellites deployed in space complimented with a global ground station network,” Spire Global CEO Peter Platzer said. “Under Pioneer, we can offer our extensive experience in manufacturing and managing small spacecraft like these to those who cannot afford to waste money and time doing it themselves. This work with ESA helps further support the global development of commercial aerospace’s potential to make space access universal.”

“These incredibly clever shoebox-sized satellites built in Glasgow could slash the complexity and cost of access to space, presenting an exciting opportunity for the UK to thrive in the commercial space age,” UK Space Agency Chief Executive Graham Turnock said. “Through our £4m development funding, the government’s Industrial Strategy and by working closely with our international partners, we are helping UK businesses transform their ideas into commercial realities, resulting in jobs, growth and innovation.”