The QB50 project is a network of 50 nanosatellites, 40 of which are 2U cubesats (10x10x20 cm, approx. 2 kg) designed to study the thermosphere (between 90 and 320 km) and 10 are 3U cubesats (10x10x30 cm, approx. 3 kg) hosting in-orbit demonstrations. It is the most ambitious European cubesat project ever undertaken.
The European Union has provided 75% of funding for QB50 (out of a total estimated cost of €11m) through its Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).
The Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics (VKI) was tasked with managing the project, funding the launch and supplying measuring instruments for the thermosphere for the 40 2U cubesats. The budgets were approximately:
• €1.7m for the instruments
• €3.5m for the launch, plus a contribution from each participating university or school providing a cubesat (€90k for a 3U cubesat and €20k for a 2U cubesat, i.e. approx. €1.7m)
VKI issued a request for proposals for cubesats from universities and engineering schools worldwide. Proposals were submitted on 30 April 2012. There were 74 submissions from 40 countries (54 for 2U cubesats to study the thermosphere and 20 for in-orbit demonstrators).
The highest number of proposals came from the United States and China, which submitted six and seven respectively. France submitted five. Other countries, among them Ethiopia, Germany, Italy, Romania, Sudan, the United Kingdom and Vietnam, also submitted proposals.
Besides its in-orbit demonstration and science goals, the QB50 project also has a student education role.
QB50 project goals. Credits: VKI
Given the project’s highly international scope, VKI set up a project team of engineers and took responsibility for satellite engineering, supply of subsystems and liaising with launch authorities. To date:
• Two ‘precursor’ 2U cubesats were orbited by a Dniepr launcher on 19 June 2014
• 28 cubesats were launched by an Atlas-V vehicle on 25 April 2017, then ferried to the International Space Station (ISS) by a Cygnus cargo vehicle two days later and placed into orbit from the ISS in May 2017. Two cubesats supported by the JANUS project (XCubesat from the Ecole Polytechnique and SpaceCube from the Ecole des Mines) were on this launch.
• Eight satellites were launched on 23 June 2017 by the PSLV-C38 flight from Sriharikota, India. These were cubesats that did not meet the safety requirements on the ISS.
On 17 April 2019, another cubesat from the JANUS project affiliated to the QB50 initiative (EntrySat from ISAE-SUPAERO) was ferried by a Cygnus cargo vehicle to the ISS and deployed on 3 July 2019.