KAUST and Spire Global to launch a novel nanosatellite

A rendering of a 6U CubeSat. credit: Spire Global

First-of-its-kind nanosatellite system aims to collect high-resolution data to improve understanding of terrestrial and ocean ecosystems

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and Spire Global (Spire), a leading provider of space-based data, analytics and space services, announced plans to pursue a collaborative nanosatellite mission, launching a 6U CubeSat that aims to collect high-quality and high-resolution data across global terrestrial, coastal and ocean ecosystems for a three year period starting at the end of 2022.

"In the past, launching a satellite was the sole domain of governments, with costs well beyond the reach of a university. CubeSats are helping to democratize space, providing the opportunity to launch a customized platform at a fraction of the traditional cost," said Matthew McCabe, director of the KAUST Climate and Livability Initiative.

"The capacity to observe the Earth in high-resolution hyperspectral detail will allow for the production of enhanced metrics to map and monitor change anywhere in the world. Closer to home, Saudi Arabia is focusing considerable effort towards the protection and restoration of its precious terrestrial and ocean systems. The data from this KAUST CubeSat will be invaluable in providing new information on both the state of existing ecosystems, and for monitoring changes resulting from improved management strategies – something that can be used to support aspects of the Saudi and Middle East Green Initiatives," added McCabe.

This original and technologically rich small satellite mission from Saudi Arabia combines Spire's expertise in Global Navigation Satellite System Reflectometry (GNSS-R) with a hyperspectral instrument that has advanced on-board processing and artificial intelligence capabilities. This is expected to allow KAUST researchers to compile and analyze high-resolution imagery that can be used for mapping terrestrial habitats; monitoring vegetation health and condition; exploring coastal ecosystems and coral reefs; advancing precision agriculture research; as well a range of other Earth and environmental science applications.

"The technological progress made in Saudi Arabia and across the wider region in recent years has been impressive, and we are pleased the country is the location for our first Space Service agreement in the Middle East. We look forward to further collaboration with KAUST to explore the scientific benefits of combining these two complementary types of remote sensing data, and support the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it works towards meeting its ambitious Vision 2030 goals," said Dan Isaac Rivera, business development executive at Spire.

The nanosatellite will carry a high-performance hyperspectral sensor with the capability to observe areas of interest anywhere in the world across more than 30 user-configurable spectral bands in the visible to near-infrared (VNIR) spectrum. Apart from delivering hyperspectral insights, the data generated by this sensor can also be combined with Spire's GNSS receiver to monitor critical variables such as the presence of moisture in the soil. It is expected that the outcome of combining these two capabilities is the delivery of unique insights across multiple domains, including but not limited to agriculture, forestry and land management.

Being space-based, the satellite offers capabilities that expand well beyond just Saudi Arabia, with KAUST researchers and international collaborators able to focus their attention on global ecosystems to explore diverse landscapes, seascapes and interconnected environments.

This innovative mission is an exciting starting point for future collaboration between KAUST and Spire. The emergence of novel nanosatellite platforms that can combine and leverage complementary sensors has the potential to deliver new insights across diverse ecosystems. This advanced KAUST satellite mission will not only provide the tools to monitor local change at global scale, but also deliver the information needed to respond to these in a timely manner.