Touchdown: First Raspberry Pi-powered mini satellite finishes record flight

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The first satellite to use Raspberry Pi Zero as its flight computer re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in May, completing a record 117 days in space.

The Get Away Special Passive Attitude Control Satellite [GASPCAS] CubeSat was deployed from the International Space Station in January 2022, and has been tracked by ground stations globally since. Developed by undergraduates from Utah State University, the project’s main objective was to test the experimental inflatable stabilization system called ‘AeroBoom’, which successfully demonstrated that small spacecraft can self-stabilise in orbit.

The mission was completed within the first 18 hours in orbit, as photos sent back to Earth from the onboard Raspberry Pi Camera confirmed. All other mission objectives were also quickly deemed successful, said Raspberry Pi – including the secondary mission to test whether low-cost Raspberry Pi computer boards can offer a cost-effective and functional substitute for far more costly space-rated flight computers.

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GASPACS was the world’s first CubeSat created entirely by undergrads

Image: Raspberry Pi

GASPACS, sponsored by NASA, is the first CubeSat completely created by undergraduates. Members of Utah State University’s Get Away Special Team were responsible for the design of the mini-satellite, a cubic module that measures just 10 centimeters across and was built using off-the-shelf components.

A Raspberry Pi Zero W computer board was responsible for all onboard computing, running Python scripts developed by the team. Over 80% of the software powering the satellite was written in the Python programming language. A DFRobot Beetle microcontroller was responsible for checking the Raspberry Pi Zero was still functional by checking for a ‘heartbeat’ signal every few seconds by the Zero. If this ever stopped, the microcontroller would simply turn it off and on again – which researchers confirmed “works just as well in space. “

The expedition was not without its challenges. The GAS Team recounted the GASPACS encounter with numerous X-class solar flares, the largest solar radiation bursts recorded in five years. Though these flares quickly claimed all other CubeSats deployed alongside GASPACS, the Pi successfully withstood the harsh conditions and continued to send photos back to Earth until its re-entry on May 23.

The team explained: “Despite the failure of commercial solar panels designed for space, the custom safeguards designed by the team kept the $10 Pi running smoothly.”

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