Two IEEC – UPC nanosatellites have been sent to space to study the polar regions with the help of artificial intelligence
2020-09-03 08:00:00
The FSSCat mission was launched today with a Vega SSMS rocket of the European Space Agency (ESA), from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The mission is run by a researcher from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC) at the Research Group in Space Sciences and Technologies  (CTE, UPC).

The mission will analyse ice and soil moisture with advanced microwave remote sensing systems and high resolution hyperspectral and thermal images.

As part of the mission, the Phi-Sat-1 technology demonstrator — promoted by ESA — will be put into orbit for the first time to detect the presence of clouds in images using artificial intelligence.

Today, 2 September 2020 at 3.51 a.m. Central European Summer Time (CEST), the Vega SSMS rocket of the European Space Agency (ESA) launched two small satellites into space from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The nanosatellites were created in the NanoSat Lab of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC) to carry out the mission called ‘FSSCat: Federated Satellite System 6U tandem mission for sea ice and soil moisture monitoring’, the 2017 winner of ESA’s “Sentinel Small Satellite (S^3) Challenge Award” and the “Copernicus Masters Competition” [1]. 

The main goal of the mission is to monitor polar ice and soil moisture, while also testing communication systems between nanosatellites, in order to create a future network of federated satellites. The increase in temperature at the North Pole has a major impact on the entire planet, both from an ecological and economical point of view. It is therefore of paramount importance to record and analyse the effects of climate change on the thickness of snow and layers of ice.

The mission carries on board the Phi-Sat-1 project — the first placed in orbit to experiment with the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in space —, promoted by the Phi-Department of ESA. The project will detect the presence of clouds in the images created by the satellites and discard those that do not have good enough quality. 

Adriano Camps, a researcher from the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC), director of the Nanosat Lab of the UPC and scientific coordinator of the María de Maeztu CommSensLab-UPC Unit, leads the FSSCat mission [2] which consists of  two small CubeSat satellites, named ³Cat-5/A and ³Cat-5/B, that carry scientific equipment on board to analyse soil moisture  — a crucial variable for agriculture, desertification studies or for calculating fire risk indices —  as well as the extent and thickness of snow and ice in the polar regions, which are fundamental parameters for maritime navigation and for monitoring the evolution of climate change.

The two nanosatellites from the FSSCat mission created at the NanoSat Lab (IEEC - UPC).
Credits: UPC - ESA

This mission is expected to improve the current spatial resolution of the land surface moisture maps, combining state-of-the-art microwave instrumentation created at Nanosat Lab of the UPC and hyperspectral optics, developed by the company Cosine, in the Netherlands. The Nanosat Lab is an UPC laboratory linked to the Barcelona School of Telecommunications Engineering (ETSETB) and the Department of Signal Theory and Communications, which has the support of IEEC.

Some of the innovative techniques that travel on the mission have been previously developed by the UPC and the Institute of Marine Sciences of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), with the support of IEEC, within the framework of the mission 'Soil Moisture Ocean Salinity (SMOS)', as well as DEIMOS Engenhari, a technology that has evolved within the framework of other ESA missions and national and European projects. All this knowledge is now collected in the 'flexible' microwave payload (FMPL-2) [3] travelling in one of the ³Cats satellites. 

FSSCat will also check the new concept of 'federated mission', conceived by Professor Alessandro Golkar, in which the mission goal is shared between several satellites. In this case, the satellites will be separated up to a distance of 1,000 kilometers.

In addition, the small satellites will communicate with each other using optical laser beams, an advanced technology that allows large volumes of information to be transmitted with less interference than those that occur in radio links between today's satellites. This system is essential for establishing reliable robust satellite networks in space and has so far only been tested on large satellites.

The mission carries on board the federated satellite system experiment (FSSExp), based on a UHF radio communication system between satellites, covering up to a maximum of 1,000 kilometers [4]. This technology has recently been experimentally validated with three stratospheric balloons that have shared the capabilities to record and download the data acquired at the base station.

The ³Cat-5/B carries a hyperspectral optical payload called Hyperscore-2 that captures and processes information in the visible, near-infrared and thermal bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. High resolution hyperspectral and thermal imaging can be used to estimate effects such as urban heat islands, detect oil spills, monitor fires or water quality and, combined with FMPL-2, to obtain higher-resolution land-surface moisture maps.

The reception of the data recorded by ³Cat-5/A will be done twice a day by means of the monitoring station that the UPC has at the Montsec Astronomical Observatory of IEEC, in Sant Esteve de la Sarga (Lleida) [5]. 


[1] The mission arose from a project presented by IEEC researcher Adriano Camps and Alessandro Golkar, visiting professor from the Skoltech Institute of Russia at ESA's “Sentinel Small Sat (S^3) Challenge Award”. In November 2017, the project won the prize, having been distinguished from a total of 39 teams from all around the world in the most important category of the “Copernicus Masters Challenge Awards”.

[2] The FSSCat mission has been developed together with the company DEIMOS Engenharia - Portuguese branch of the international Elecnor Deimos-, the Estonian company Golbriak Space OÜ, the Dutch company Cosine Remote Sensing and the Italian Tyvak International, and has had technical support and supervision from ESA. 

[3] The FMPL-2 instrument has been developed within the framework of the doctoral thesis of the student Joan Francesc Muñoz, and the receiving antenna, by the doctoral student Lara Fernández, both graduates of the University Master's degree in Telecommunications Engineering at the UPC.

[4] This technology is the result of the research of the Nanosat Lab doctoral student, Joan Adrià Ruiz de Azua, also a graduate of the University Master's degree in Telecommunications Engineering at the UPC. 

[5] The station was set up based on the research of the doctoral student Adrià Pérez, a graduate of the Master's degree in Telecommunications Engineering at the UPC, and the Final Degree project of the student Aina García, of the Barcelona School of Informatics (FIB) from the same university.


- NanoSat Lab
- FSSCat mission
- IEEC - Montsec Astronomical Observatory 
- Launch details
- UPC project receives the ESA 'Sentinel Small Satellite Challenge' award (11/08/2017)

More information

The Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC  — Institut d’Estudis Espacials de Catalunya) promotes and coordinates space research and technology development in Catalonia for the benefit of society. IEEC fosters collaborations both locally and worldwide and is an efficient agent of knowledge, innovation and technology transfer. As a result of over 20 years of high-quality research, done in collaboration with major international organisations, IEEC ranks among the best international research centers, focusing on areas such as: astrophysics, cosmology, planetary science, and Earth Observation. IEEC’s engineering division develops instrumentation for ground- and space-based projects, and has extensive experience in working with private or public organisations from the aerospace and other innovation sectors.  

IEEC is a private non-profit foundation, governed by a Board of Trustees composed of Generalitat de Catalunya and four other institutions that each have a research unit, which together constitute the core of IEEC R&D activity: the University of Barcelona (UB) with the research unit ICCUB — Institute of Cosmos Sciences; the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) with the research unit CERES — Center of Space Studies and Research; the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) with the research unit CTE — Research Group in Space Sciences and Technologies; the Spanish Research Council (CSIC) with the research unit ICE — Institute of Space Sciences. IEEC is integrated in the CERCA network (Centres de Recerca de Catalunya).


IEEC Communication Office
Barcelona, Spain

Ana Montaner Pizà

Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC)
Research Group in Space Sciences and Technologies (CTE)
Barcelona, Spain

Adriano Camps
Attached Documents
Generalitat de CatalunyaUniversitat de BarcelonaUniversitat Autònoma de BarcelonaUniversitat Politècnica de CatalunyaConsejo Superior de Investigaciones CientíficasCentres de Recerca de Catalunya