TOPCAT for satellite weather monitoring

Recently the UK Space Agency announced that it would launch a pilot CubeSat programme in which a miniaturised satellite, known as UKube 1, is sent into space to conduct research. The maiden flight programme included competition for companies and academic groups to come up with innovative ideas for devices to join the CubeSat, with the UK Space Agency selecting the three most pioneering to be sent into space.

The University of Bath’s competition team has developed TOPCAT, a piece of equipment that can measure the areas of space just beyond the earth’s atmosphere called the plasmasphere.

The UK Space Agency was impressed with the team’s design and it was awarded a position on UKube 1’s maiden mission.

“UKube-1 is really starting to take shape,” said Dr David Williams, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency. “Our payload competition has enabled us to include a wide variety of innovative instruments and experiments that will drive the development of UK space technologies and help to enthuse UK students about science. CubeSat missions offer opportunities for a wide range of people to get involved in space activity, removing barriers and encouraging innovation.”

TOPCAT will be the first device of its kind to measure space weather conditions in the plasmasphere.

The results from the measurements taken by TOPCAT will allow these conditions to be monitored and reacted to, reducing negative implications for GPS and improving systems such as satellite navigation and telecommunications.

TOPCAT team member Julian Rose said: “Being able to monitor and react to events in the earth’s atmosphere is crucial in maintaining GPS accuracy and integrity. The ionosphere can seriously degrade GPS signals and may lead to positioning inaccuracies of tens of metres.”

“Bursts of radiation from the sun or space weather events bombard the ionosphere and can make matters worse.”

“The competition was a fantastic opportunity for us to get to a position where we can really measure these conditions, as the altitude of the satellite will allow a unique viewing angle and will complement the ground-based measurements currently available,” said Professor Cathryn Mitchell at the University of Bath. “Essentially, being able to send TOPCAT into space allows us to produce improved resolution images allowing more in-depth monitoring of the near-earth space environment.”

PhD student Talini Pinto Jayawardena will be responsible for developing TOPCAT, under the supervision of Professor Cathryn Mitchell, Dr Robert Watson and Julian Rose.

PhD student Talini Pinto Jayawardena will be responsible for building TOPCAT 

Talini completed her MEng in Space Science & Technology at the University of Bath so is perfectly qualified for the job.

She said: “Being involved in the TOPCAT project is extremely exciting. Building TOPCAT is expected to take about six months and as it is the first system of its type there are certain to be challenges to overcome.

“The main test is to install the dual frequency GPS receiver and test it vigorously before sending it into space.”

TOPCAT is funded by the University of Bath and the Bath Alumni Fund. It is supported by Rutherford Appleton LaboratoryMullard Space Science Laboratory and UK company Chronos Technology.


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