World’s Smallest Infrared Hyperspectral Camera Reaches Space Aboard a Smallsat

A pioneering Finnish smallsat has now reached space equipped with the world’s smallest infrared hyperspectral camera.

Reaktor Hello World smallsat.

The photos with infrared data taken from the satellite provide new solutions for monitoring and managing the effects of climate change. The hyperspectral camera is a trailblazing innovation from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. The Reaktor Hello World smallsat was launched into space on November 29 by the Finnish space technology startup Reaktor Space Lab.

In the past, hyperspectral imaging — the simultaneous collection of the optical spectrum at each point in an image — was feasible only with larger, exorbitantly priced satellites. The larger satellites also came with significant restrictions: a single satellite provides new data only when passing over a specific location and produces new imagery on several-day intervals.

New smallsats, such as the Reaktor Hello World satellite weighing only a couple of kilograms, are relatively inexpensive and fast to build. In groups, smallsats can form cost-efficient constellations. With the help of the new Finnish imaging technology, smallsats are now able to collect critical, nearly real-time data on the state of our planet. That development has far-reaching benefits for monitoring climate change.

The infrared wavelength region shown by the hyperspectral imager contains a significant amount of data. That data can be used to recognize ground targets such as fields, forests, mines or built infrastructure and analyze their features based on unique spectral fingerprints. Such features could be related to the presence of chemicals like fertilizers, biomass content or rock species, for example. Hyperspectral imagers can also monitor vegetation health and the composition of greenhouse gases.

The infrared hyperspectral imager on board the Reaktor Hello World smallsat is a small, lightweight, 2D-snapshot tunable spectral imager operating in the short-wave infrared spectra (900–1400 nm). The world’s first smallsat compatible hyperspectral imager built by VTT was launched on board the Aalto-1 satellite in June of 2017, demonstrating hyperspectral imaging for visible and VNIR range (500 – 900 nm). Now, the technology has successfully been extended to cover also the infrared range. In the future, the team believes that this hyperspectral imaging technology can bring completely new solutions for space exploration.

The first images were taken on December 2 over the Sahara desert and they were downloaded from the Reaktor Hello World during the first weeks of December.

”The image to the right Sahara shows how the water content of an area can be determined and mapped based on infrared spectral image data,” explained Antti Näsilä, Senior Scientist at VTT and the leading technical expert for the camera development of the Reaktor Hello World smallsat mission. “This type of information could prove crucial for areas fighting drought or forest fires, both of which are becoming more common with the changing climate. In the future, nanosatellite constellations could provide, for instance, concurring updates about the severity of the droughts in each neighborhood in California.

The image to the left offers false color images of desert highland in southern Sahara. The image on the left depicts the changes of the soil type across the image while the image on the right displays changes in soil moisture. The water reservoir in the upper part of the image is very well highlighted in this image, when compared to the dark rocks.

Executive Comment

Tuomas Tikka, CEO of Reaktor Space Lab, Reaktor’s portfolio company that specializes in building advanced nanosatellites for space-based services, said this new technology will allow the company to react to global environmental changes in near real time. That opens up many new business opportunities.

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