Exploring Earth’s Details with a 2-mm Lens

Incredible Image of Earth Captured by Miniature Camera on TRISAT-R CubeSat

A remarkable image of a distant Earth, partially obscured by shadows, has been acquired by a miniaturized camera aboard the TRISAT-R CubeSat. The camera, which is about the size of the edge of a 20 cent coin, captured this unique view from a 6,000 km-altitude orbit. The TRISAT-R project manager, Iztok Kramberger, from the University of Maribor, describes the camera as measuring less than two cubic millimeters, yet it was able to photograph an object roughly one trillion cubic kilometers in size – our beautiful planet Earth.

TRISAT-R is Slovenia’s second space mission and is constructed using three standardized 10-cm boxes. It was launched on Europe’s inaugural Vega-C launch last year and is currently situated in medium-Earth orbit at an altitude of 6,000 km. This orbit takes TRISAT-R through the ionosphere, an electrically active layer of Earth’s atmosphere, as well as the inner Van Allen radiation belt. This unique position allows TRISAT-R to test a suite of radiation-detection payloads.

In addition to these experiments, the TRISAT-R team also installed a pair of tiny cameras with lenses made from clear borosilicate glass. These cameras were designed to provide limited radiation resistance and are mounted directly onto 320×320 pixel image sensors. Dr. Kramberger explains that the resulting picture of Earth is low resolution because the miniaturized cameras were not intended for terrestrial imaging. Furthermore, the satellite’s attitude control system, which uses magnetorquers, makes precision pointing challenging to achieve.

The primary objective of the TRISAT-R mission was to capture examples of the ‘Black Sun effect’ commonly observed in terrestrial digital imaging. This effect occurs when over-saturation of pixels causes very bright areas to appear dark. While successful in investigating this phenomenon, the team also had the good fortune of acquiring stunning images like the one captured of Earth.

The European Space Agency (ESA) provided support for the manufacturing, assembly, and testing of TRISAT-R through its General Support Technology Program. This program, known as ‘Fly,’ offers in-orbit demonstration opportunities for European companies. TRISAT-R’s unique and challenging orbit has made it an perfect platform for testing various technologies and payloads.

The commissioning phase of the TRISAT-R mission is set to conclude later this month after 16 months of successful in-orbit operations. This phase has allowed the team to gather valuable data and insights, further advancing our understanding of CubeSat technology and its potential applications.

For those interested in CubeSat and small satellites or seeking to learn more about how these technologies are transforming the space sector, the 4S Small Satellites Systems and Services Symposium is a must-attend event. Jointly organized by the ESA and the French space agency CNES, the symposium will take place in Palma de Mallorca from May 26-31, 2024. It will provide a platform for experts and enthusiasts to share knowledge, exchange ideas, and explore the latest developments in the field of small satellite systems and services.