PicSat Takes a Train to Orbit

Artist's conception of PicSat nanosatellite in Earth orbit
Artist’s conception of PicSat in orbit. Image courtesy PicSat.

A couple of days ago, PicSat rocketed into orbit on a mission that will last about a year, thus neatly spanning this new year 2018.

The mission will be to observe the transit of a gas giant exoplanet, Beta Pictoris b, as it passes between us and its sun.  The planet is new in at least two senses:  it was discovered in 2009, orbiting a star just 63 light-years from Earth, and it’s believed to have been formed quite recently.  In fact, its orbit is actually inside the cloud of dust and debris left over from the birth of the planet.

What makes this satellite special is its minuscule size and mass:  PicSat isn’t much larger than a baguette. This comparison is particularly apt, because PicSat was designed and assembled in Paris.  Here it is leaving Paris via the Gare du Nord, the Parisian train station dedicated to generally northbound departures.

Outside the station—taking the train to orbit!rain
Photo courtesy PicSat

If you’re wondering where in the picture the satellite is, it’s in that picnic cooler-size container being carried by PicSat team members Sylvestre Lacour and Maturin Grénot.

PicSat’s train ride to Holland was powered by an electric locomotive, by the way; electric locomotives were first introduced about a hundred and ten years ago—a nice illustration of the old and the new coexisting side by side.

PicSat’s size, mass, and a few other properties were  set by the CubeSat nanosatellite specifications which allow smaller packages to piggyback on launches of other, more complex and expensive payloads so long as they pose little or no risk of jeopardizing the host vehicle.  As an example of this philosophy, once in orbit the host vehicle deploys CubeSat packages by means of a simple spring launcher—like a child’s toy.  In a way, that’s precisely what they are:  CubeSat specifications were originally developed to enable graduate students to design and build their own satellites.

In railroad terms, this corresponds to a less-than-carload (“LCL”) shipment; while most people don’t know it, it’s still possible to ship small parcels in the baggage car on Amtrak trains today.

Here’s PicSat, proudly posing in front of four of its creators:

PicSat nanosatellite standing on table in front of four of the experiemnters who built it.
Photo courtesy PicSat

From left to right, these experimenters are Vincent Lapeyrere, Antoine Crouzier, Mathias Nowak, and Lester David.  Who says science can’t be fun? To learn more about the PicSat project, or help receive telemetered data from the satellite, visit picsat.obspm.fr 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.