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Postcards from Space: Satellite formation flying first – the PROBA-3 mission

The PROBA-3 mission is now starting to take shape and will be the first mission to fly two platforms in close formation-flying. This means two satellites flying together while maintaining a specific distance and working as one unit.

It will be the first mission distributing a single optical instrument – a sun-watching coronagraph – over two platforms in an elliptical Earth orbit. One platform will cover the sunlight to the other platform, which will be studying the sun corona. And as PROBA-3 is a versatile platform, it will also be carrying some technology demonstrators.

Postcards from Space

Image Credit: ESA

The critical design review of PROBA-3 was concluded at the European Space Agency (ESA) last year and the project is now in full implementation phase to be ready for launch in 2022. QinetiQ’s space business will also be providing the on-board computers of both spacecraft.

The two fully redundant units have been released from test phase and are now presently residing in our new cleanroom facilities. The units are the ADPMS2-P3 units. ADPMS stands for Advanced Data and Power Management System and it was initially created for the PROBA-2 mission.

QinetiQ’s space team has been able to create, from scratch, an easily adaptable and configurable mix of units with a plug-and-play architecture that gives the high-bandwidth, simplicity, and reliability required to fly a satellite in space. The first ADPMS unit is still managing the PROBA-2 satellite in space and has worked perfectly since its launch in 2009.

The team has since evolved the ADPMS, thus ADPMS2 was born. It was used on PROBA-V and other missions, and has now been modified to fit the PROBA-3 mission power demands and to solve production difficulties, hence the ADPMS2-P3 designation. ADPMS2-P3 will be the last two units based on the ADPMS2. It is time to move on to ADPMS-3. And having had the privilege to see the genius in the way the design works – it has required little to no engineering attention integrating its capabilities into the PROBA-3 mission developments – I look forward to the next evolution of the unit for our customers.

Over the next year parts of the PROBA-3 satellites will arrive at our cleanroom facilities. We’ll be connecting more and more of the arriving subsystems into a ‘flat-sat’ configuration, where the electrical platforms and the functional architecture will be tested before integrating the spacecraft structures scheduled to arrive at QinetiQ by the end of the year, give or take the COVID impact. Once Airbus integration teams are finished putting the spacecraft together and we have everything tested, PROBA-3 will go to the environmental test campaign and to India for launch. What a privilege to send the satellites from our cleanroom to space! It’s a bit like when your kids leave the nest. But we won’t say goodbye to PROBA-3. We’ll only say a ‘see you later’ as we will help operate the spacecraft during the commissioning from our ground station in Redu, Belgium.