On October 11, 2023, ASI (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana), the Italian Space Agency announced that a new CubeSat mission, named INNOVATOR, has been selected for the development phase, among the proposed projects in the call “Future CubeSat Missions”.
The satellite will start a Phase A feasibility study, soon to become the 12th mission from the ASI ALCOR program to be under advanced development. It will be made possible by a Temporary Business Grouping (Raggruppamento Temporaneo d’Impresa, or RTI), several companies will be working together to advance the project.
The agreed RTI will comprise project principal DTA (Distretto Tecnologico Aerospaziale) cooperating with Thales Alenia Space Italia and CIRI-AERO, the Aerospace research branch of the University of Bologna. In the next few weeks, the first Kick-Off meeting will officially start the Phase A studies, with an overall length of 6 months.
A CubeSat pair to study Earth
INNOVATOR stands for INtersatellite liNk fOr graVity and ATmOspheRic science. As the name suggests, the mission goal is to use two 6U CubeSats in constant communication with each other, to perform gravity measurements and high-altitude atmospheric profiles.
In order to take those precise measurements, each satellite will be equipped with a very precise radio instrument named ISL-T, Inter Satellite Link. The radio instruments will be fundamental for estimating all the accelerations felt by the two satellites.
The pair is going to analyze data to provide ranging and range-rate measurements. Using radio pulses while in LEO between 500 and 600 km, will highlight the changes in distance and relative velocity. Data gathered will then be used to precisely determine the orbital parameters of the spacecraft. This will make it possible to precisely discern gravitational and non-gravitational accelerations acting differently on the two CubeSats, therefore permitting accurate gravity measurements.
The INNOVATOR mission will also be equipped with a Doppler link, using frequency analysis to estimate the density, temperature and pressure of atmospheric layers between the two orbiting satellites’ line of sight.
The instrument will also be used for TEC, Total Electron Content. This useful metric is particularly important for Ionosphere studies and can be used for space-weather estimations. In fact, it’s closely correlated with solar storms and other factors that can negatively impact positioning and navigation systems on land, such as GPS.
These methods, ISL-T in particular, are an innovation and will help ASI to distinguish itself in the developing European space economy. But being a new approach, part of the mission is also to validate this technology to be used in other missions after this concludes.
ALCOR and its vast mission catalog
The INNOVATOR mission is part of the broader ALCOR program. ASI announced it in 2022, bringing forward 20 CubeSat missions to be realized in the near future. As stated before, 11 of those missions are in advanced development already.
The mission objectives of this initiative, which involves a wide roster of Italian industry partners, are multiple. From Earth Science to Communications, each satellite will contribute to scientific discoveries and innovation in its own way. Cooperation and communication between different satellites is obviously another focus of the initiative. The use of Artificial Intelligence for onboard data management is being considered, along with more innovative technologies, from propulsion to antennas. All these missions will be conceived with sustainability in mind and will be using both active and passive deorbiting systems.
The program is working together with various universities in Italy, such as the University of Bologna, and Politecnico di Milano, favoring R&D to create a new space industry hub. In recent years, Italy has been expanding its reach into space, with collaborations into important space missions, research flights and now with an ever-expanding satellite network for the benefit of all.