Unicorn-2: The world's most powerful PocketQube launch

Do you have a burning desire to launch a nanosatellite into space? Is your access currently limited to a low budget and time constraints? Are you looking for help in completing your first satellite mission? You have come to the right place. The beginning is simple. Alba Orbital builds PocketQube satellites which offer you reliable launch opportunities every year.


The next available launch of the Unicorn 2 satellite platform, Alba Cluster 2, is scheduled for mid to late 2019 to a 500 km SSO on Kodiak Island in Alaska. This is a key milestone as it will be the world’s most powerful PocketQube launch in history. Not only is it an interesting breakthrough into space, but it is desirable in terms of affordability and timeliness. We have already received considerable interest in our new satellite  (50% capacity) but we hope that our clusters can attract more of our target market - companies, universities and amateur teams - as you need a large number of satellites to fill any launch vehicle.


Prior to the launch, satellites will be integrated within the company’s own deployer (AlbaPOD) deployer in 6p or 96p variety. These picosat operators are used on a commercial scale which allows for more frequent launch prospects. Flight proven technologies for both the PocketQube and the deployer guarantee accuracy at each stage. Pricing for the launch depends on size, starting from 25k euros for 1p, 40k euros for 2p and 60k euros for 3p. As highlighted previously, this is considerably cheaper than any other cubesat launch service in its industry, allowing you to fly more missions or invest in your team. The cluster size is 12p at present. As of present, Alba Orbital welcomes a deposit of 10% of the launch upon request.


Alba Orbital value the customers’ mission requirements like their own. Given that our launches occur on an annual basis, customers can achieve missions in a shorter time than before and thus stick to important deadlines. In addition, Unicorn 2 offers a range of payloads with a 22gsd from a 500 km orbit. The most common is an optical payload.


Our partnership with European Space Agency (ESA) initially lead to the development of the 2p PocketQube platform, Unicorn-1 which was a great success but equally outlined certain sources of learning and flagged degrees of improvement. Unicorn-2 is Alba Orbital’s latest advancement, a slightly bigger 3p PocketQube platform with the capacity to fly on a PocketQube for the first time ever. Quality is continually assessed by the ESA.


Here is Tom Walkinshaw, the CEO, with his current reflections on PocketQubes themselves:


Why PocketQubes?

They are the next frontier of small satellites and really the cutting edge of miniaturization which allows more people access to space than ever before.


What did Alba Orbital learn from Unicorn 1?

We learned about how to build a satellite and most importantly, the ways in which we could build a team, as well as building a company around a team. There were so many lessons, for example all the subsystems concerning a good PocketQube.


Will Alba Orbital continue its launches of Unicorn 1 after the launch this year or will it be scrapped completely when Unicorn 2 is in action?

We are unsure at the minute as it all depends on the market. If people want Unicorn 1, we will build Unicorn 1. Unicorn 2 is a massive leap forward and is a lot more interesting because of its spectrum. It is worth seeing how the Demo mission goes first of all and if interest is still there for Unicorn 1, we will consider a discount on it.


State the main differences and/or improvements between Unicorn 1 and Unicorn 2.

What can be achieved with a larger PocketQube?

Unicorn 2 is a lot better in several ways. We really have established a large engineering team who are currently developing Unicorn 2. We have learned the lessons from Unicorn 1 which we obviously did not have before, this experience of building PocketQubes. The key headline number is our power so this means that we are about 20 watts peak on Unicorn 2 compared to under 1 watt on Unicorn 1. We are essentially 19 watts up, in other words, 20 times more powerful. Data rate is about 20 times quicker as well. We stand at 200 kilobytes per second versus 10 kilobytes in Unicorn 1. There is active control for the first time so we can orientate the satellite where we want to go and this allows for more missions. We have more payload volume internally - all our electronics are integrated into the backplane, one main circuit board that has all the key components - whereas in Unicorn 1, there were several small boards. The payload volume allows us to fly cameras. Hence, we are flying a camera on Unicorn 2-A with Vector-R. We also have two different new radios. In general, it is a much more advanced platform.


Describe the key applications of PocketQubes.

Our main application is Earth observation (EO), however, several applications exist in terms of remote sensing applications such as picking up aircraft beacons (ADSB), ship tracking beacons (EIS), weather, communications like IOT. There is a lot of interest in missions doing spectrum monitoring, for instance, how do you know who uses what spectrum? If you are a satellite, you can put up different usage levels in different areas. And of course, we have communications - how do you connect all these devices in the middle of nowhere? With a satellite overhead, you can get the data back. Also, technology demonstrations which is flying new technology in space for the first time is really a massive application and general satellite missions which describes when a satellite can do something that no other architecture can.


How does Alba Orbital help make the launch process simpler?

We are definitely trying to make it more streamlined. Historically, it was very difficult to procure a launch for PocketQube and we have been working on Unicorn 1 for almost three years now. We learnt this the hard way but good price does not necessarily mean good customer service or fast service. Therefore we really set out to try and build a service for the service that we run ourselves. We have an ICD online so this gives consumers the possibility to build their own satellite. This may sound trivial but we were told that the dimensions of the PocketQubes had changed after we bought it. We also run developer workshops twice a year in Asia. This allows for nanosatellite company representatives to gather and discuss how we can improve our satellites. We want to make it easy for our target market to manifest a launch. Our goal is to launch a cluster at least once a year so we have a regular bus schedule for customers to confidently plan that if they gave some funding for their mission that they meet mission requirements on a timely scale.  


Do Alba Orbital have direct competitors? If so, who are they and what does Alba Orbital do differently?

In terms of PocketQubes, we do not have any direct competitors. I would say that we have indirect competition with the lower end of the cubesat market for platforms but no one else really develops the same kind of technology. When it comes to launch, there are other launch deployer called GAUSS Srl yet strangely, we are their biggest customer in the community. Our competition with GAUSS Srl on the launch is considered as a positive because our company would like to see more access to space. As their customer, we would love them to be a success and in turn, I hope we do well to meet the current demand for PocketQubes.


Is the PocketQube format an Open Standard?

Yes, we just released the new version with TU Deflt and GAUSS Srl ourselves so that is available on each of our websites.


How are the company’s visions portrayed in the Alba Orbital Launch Service?

The vision of Alba Orbital is to advance PocketQubes and the miniaturization of satellites. In order to democratise access to space, you need to have access to space which essentially refers to our launches. This is never going to be an easy ride but the more people who sign up, the easier it will be to reduce the cost per satellite. If the satellite is small like PocketQubes, we can be really competitive and allow our customers to launch for 25k euros instead of 250k which is quite a game changer. It enables regular launches and more possibilities in advancing programmes.


What sort of limitations/barriers do you see for PocketQubes? What are Challenges faced in creating this kind of spacecraft?

There is a lot - PocketQubes are very small and at present, there is a lack of knowledge concerning this technology. I have been building them for over 5 years which is probably longer than anyone in the world. Firstly, most of the advances in PocketQubes are related to smartphones and how we can use that technology in space. The second factor is gaining more insight on deployable panels and mechanisms such as 3D printing. There are several key aspects to follow when making a good PocketQube - integration, deployables, just making everything really small… If you can make something small, make it smaller. Alba Orbital is always experimenting to see how we can improve our satellites. We have already seen huge improvements on first and second generation. We hope that we can reach a point where the advantages of PocketQubes are super obvious and widely known. For us, we want to prove to customers that it is a viable option to achieve missions.


What does the future hold for the PocketQube format? Will there be a Unicorn 3?

*Laughs* The plan is to update the leading edge platform every few years. There will always be small alterations but one day we hope to see Unicorn 3, 4, 5 and I think the PocketQube community will grow as a whole. I have already seen this growth. Only a few people in the world developed PocketQubes when I started out and now I see over 70 people at these conferences. In our eyes, PocketQubes seem like the future so we are trying to lead that and make it happen. It is an exciting place to be.



If you would like more information, please email contact@pocketqubeshop.com.