Student Science Satellites and Sounding Rockets

The S4 program is a small satellite platform for doing science on high altitude balloons, hobby and amateur sounding rockets.

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S4 (Small Satellites for Secondary Students) is a program to deliver a science platform (much like a remote tricorder) as payload on amateur rockets or high altitude balloons. Intended for secondary students and all those curious about investigating our world. It integrates th packaging of LEO pico satellites called PocketQubes, the speed of fast modern Cortex ARM Arduino processing platforms, a modular configuration of modern sensors for position, magnetic field, temperature, air pollution, atmospheric aerosols and gamma ray spectroscopy with the state-of-the art modern IoT spread spectrum low power long distance wireless telemetry. Low end versions can be packaged in a 3D printed hen's egg and flown on Team America Rocketry Contest ( hobby rockets to thousands of feet while high end versions can be flown on ARLISS Extreme sounding rockets to the troposphere and beyond.

The S4 (Small Satellites for Secondary Students) student satellite system is an opportunity to do science experiments as rocket and balloon science payloads targeted to middle and high school students - but also useful to a much wider range of curious learners.   It is based on over 20 years of the international ARLISS program of university and high school student payloads that invented CanSats, CubeSats and autonomous recovery satellite robots.   It uses the PocketQube format for small satellites that is the inevitable successor to CubeSats and CanSats via Moore’s Law.

The S4 vision is to imagine a progression of science experiments rooted in missions on the ground or on small rockets such as TARC, progressing to missions to a few thousand meters on high power hobby rockets (like ARLISS), extending to sounding rocket or high altitude balloon missions to tens of kilometers high in stratosphere and exosphere (like ARLISS Extreme) and eventually to PocketQube missions deployed into Low Earth Orbit.   Each step challenges student imagination and abilities with an incremental increase in  scope, risk and cost - based on a common platform.

The wide range of sensors and extensibility of the S4 system allow for missions in the atmosphere or the ground (and eventually space!) that are largely only limited by the learner’s imagination and are tantalizing close to the capabilities of Star Trek’s tricorder.

    • Atmosphere science measuring aerosols, dust, radioactive residue, organic compounds, lightning, temperature, pressure, humidity, gas content;
    • Measurement of ground and vegetation using visible and infrared light imaging and image processing;
    • Vehicle dynamics measuring drag, vehicle orientation, position, trajectory using GPS, accelerometers, gyros, magnetometers, temperature sensors;
    • Airframe control for recovery thru servos and/or pyrotechnics;
    • Satellite recovery after apogee deployment via parachute or mechanically actuated recovery like steerable parasails or parawings with autonomous guidance;
    • Cosmic gamma ray spectrometer analysis in the exosphere.

Each 2019 S4 satellite payload is inspired by the new standard PocketQube picosatellite format (in the 1p format, 5 cm on a side, in the 1.5p format - 5 x 5 x 7.5 cm, ~300 gm) - invented by Professor Bob Twiggs, inventor of CanSats and co-inventor of CubeSats.   Each S4 satellite contains a portfolio of sensors and is programmed as an advanced Internet of Things Cortex ARM computer.   Configurations with minimal sensors can be as inexpensive as $50, and full-up configurations with multiple sensors and telemetry can reach over $200.  Core data collection loops can exceed 20 Hz, with multi sensor collection loops delivering 5-10 Hz. 

S4 collects data locally on the satellite in non-volatile flash memory.   Higher end S4 payloads can add real time radio telemetry using modern spread spectrum long range radio communications to communicate to ground stations and download real-time telemetry from the mission and track payloads via GPS.

The system is extensible and new sensors can be added to each S4 satellite for new and different missions.   Users can make use of the default sensors and mission programming or add new sensors and programming. 

S4 satellites are designed to be flown on rockets as small as TARC rockets or drones that fly a standard hen’s egg size payload on F and G motors to 1000’ up to high power sounding rockets or balloons that reach the top of the stratosphere.  S4 satellites can be configured for either captive flights or to be deployed at apogee on a recovery device (such as a parachute) for independent descent.   The PocketQube format allows for an incremental transition to an ultimate space capable packaging suitable for LEO deployment.

The S4 program anticipates rapid technology changes in platforms and sensors and has tried to standardize on common...

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2019 S4 Technical Overview.pdf

Adobe Portable Document Format - 532.01 kB - 04/30/2019 at 20:29


2017 S4 Overview.pdf

Overview document of the 2017 design

Adobe Portable Document Format - 8.77 MB - 05/26/2017 at 23:30


  • Major 2019 Upgrades - Cost Down, Performance Up, Size Down

    Ken Biba04/29/2019 at 18:45 0 comments

    Major new 2019 upgrades for S4.

    1. Major processor upgrade to the ARM Cortex M4 thru the Adafruit ItsyBitsy M4 Express.   
    2. The new processor allows a major change in form factor to the PocketQube 1p - a 50% decrease in volume.
    3. The new processor allows a major change in form factor to PocketQube standard stacked 42mm square PCBs with a common bus for power and communications.
    4. Communications have been simplified to LoRa.
    5. Performance improved by ~4x.
    6. Mission memory simplified to totally solid state flash removing occasional memory loss due to flight stress on uSD cards in mechanical carriers.   Major increase in reliability.
    7. New sensors for atmospheric aerosols spectroscopy, light spectroscopy, UV light, IR imaging.
    8. New I2C GPS with new altitude limit of ~80 km.

  • A Lightning Sensor

    Ken Biba06/01/2017 at 16:04 0 comments

    Just found another I2C sensor for the atmosphere - a lightning detector!

    The ASM As3935 breakout board. Looks to be easy to interface. Ordered one to test.

    Looks like it detects the electrical energy signature at a specific frequency of lightning containing storms.

    Would be interesting to fly on a rocket or a HAB ... it does detect distance to the storm - between 5 and 40 km. I wonder how that information would correlate with other information we can collect on humidity, pressure, dust? UV? Temperature?

  • 50 years to a Gamma Ray Spectroscope

    Ken Biba05/27/2017 at 17:51 0 comments

    The last few weeks have been dedicated to integrating sensors and toughening up a "production" release of the firmware.

    One of my favorite sensors is the First Sensor X100-7 silicon photodiode gamma ray sensor. This is perhaps particularly so since I had an amazing experience in my senior summer after high school (1968) working in the gamma ray astronomy lab of Dr. Glenn Fry at the Naval Research Laboratory. His lab was flying payloads of photographic emulsion to the top of the atmosphere in high altitude balloons to construct a then state-of-the-art gamma ray telescope via the Compton effect (a gamma ray passing an atomic nucleus will sometimes decay into a positron and election - in a V shaped pattern. The angle between the particles correlates to the energy of the gamma and backtracking the paths of the particles in the emulsion yield the source direction of the gamma ray.). The real challenge was the changing orientation of the balloon payload. BIG challenge in 1968, but the S4 platform has GPS and 9DOF sensors to determine the attitude at the time of capture - and perhaps some inference as to the cosmic source?

    The first version of the S4 software for the X100-7 captured gamma ray counts. While interesting, it was tantalizing insufficient. Was there information about the energy of the gamma ray in the pulse coming from the detector. A bit of oscilloscope research showed the pulse height did not seem to change much but there was an intriguing difference in pulse width. If there was energy information in the pulse width - then I could easily construct not only a gamma detector, but more importantly a gamma spectrograph. Oh my.

    I found a way to record pulse width on the Arduino by capturing at interrupt time the timing the rise and fall of the detector pulse (while still collecting polled data samples from the other sensors BTW!).

    I then let the S4 sit about collecting gamma ray information about the background radiation in my study.

    A bit of Excel later. Voila!

    This looked kinda good ... but was it an accurate spectrogram of background radiation. A bit of web research found this sample spectrogram of background gamma (and X-ray) radiation. The horizontal scale is keV

    Modulo my spectrogram's lack of resolution from only 40 minutes of data collection - with an off the shelf detector! - it looked awfully good. The X100-7 has poor efficiency near the top end of its detection range - ~1 meV so with the short exposure time at the bottom on the atmosphere missing the Bi214 line at 900 keV was not concerning.

    But was there reliable energy information in the pulse width?

    I mapped the key features of the published spectrogram to my sample to attempt a correlation. Was there a relationship between pulse width and photon energy?

    Could be. But there is definitely energy information in the pulse width. More data will improve the calibration. But an exponential seems about right.

    So ... with an inexpensive photodiode sensor, a bit of Arduino code - the S4 now has likely a gamma ray spectrograph.

    Another DIY project capturing science at what only governments could do 50 years ago.

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larrymonrou wrote 05/20/2024 at 11:32 point

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sarajampen12 wrote 11/18/2023 at 14:53 point

Very interesting

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auwebber23 wrote 06/16/2021 at 09:41 point

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