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In 2016, SDSL gained an opportunity to bring the goals of the organization’s founding members to fruition with the Phoenix CubeSat project. Within the next few years, SDSL will send a 3U CubeSat to space to study the Urban Heat Island Effect through infrared remote sensing, thus completing the objective that SDS-1 sought out to achieve in 2011. In addition, Phoenix is the first CubeSat to be developed at ASU by an entirely undergraduate-student led team, and it hopes to lay the foundation for many student CubeSat opportunities to come.   


Spacecraft Overview

In the fall of 2015, an undergraduate student team from SDSL, along with students from ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration authored the Phoenix proposal for NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project (USIP) Program, which was designed by NASA to provide students with a student flight research opportunity at the undergraduate level. In May 2016, the team was awarded $200,000 of funding by USIP and the NASA Space Grant Program to develop the satellite in house at ASU. Now, Phoenix has over 30 active members, spanned across 5 of ASU’s schools, including: the Fulton Schools of Engineering, the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, the School of Earth and Space Exploration, Herberger School of Design, and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. While the team is diverse, all members work collectively toward the project’s goals to design a spacecraft and educate the community on the importance of Urban Heat Islands.

Phoenix will spend two years in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 400km and inclination of 51.6° – the same orbit as the ISS. The satellite will include a payload of the Tau 2 Infrared Camera developed by FLIR Technologies, which provides a resolution of 640 x 512 pixels. The camera will be fitted with a 100mm lens to yield a 6.2° x 5° field of view and a typical ground footprint of 43 x 35 km. Lunar images will be taken to calibrate the Tau 2 camera and determine the accuracy of the images taken of all US cities. Three reaction wheels and three magnetorquers will be used for attitude control, while sun sensors and earth limb sensors will provide knowledge of the satellite’s orientation over the earth. Two radio frequency bands will be used to communicate with the earth. UHF will be used for schedule uplinks and to broadcast frequent health beacons that communicate the satellite’s status. S-Band frequencies will be used for large data dumps including image downlinks and all telemetry collected over the course of the week.  

All mission operations and data processing will be performed in house at ASU, using the ASU mission operations center in ISBT4 and the ASU ground station. Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, AZ will be used as a backup ground station in the event that the ASU ground station is non-operational. Phoenix is currently in the critical design phase, with a focus on hardware testing and integration, flight software development, and development of ground support systems for the mission operations period.


What is the Importance of Urban Heat Islands?

The Urban Heat Island (UHI) Effect is a phenomenon in which our urban environment is hotter than the surrounding rural area. As our buildings absorb and radiate energy throughout the course of the day, the severity of UHIs are attributed to the materials and makeup of the city itself. This consequently establishes a decrease in air quality, an increase energy consumption, and contributions to human discomfort as UHIs worsen.




As we receive data from space, our team of scientists will overlay the thermal images with maps of each city’s Local Climate Zones to show how our urban infrastructure contributes to making areas either warmer or cooler than other areas around the world. As our studies grow, the team hopes to one day partner with urban planners to develop new ways of mitigating this phenomenon and making our communities cooler and more sustainable.

Phoenix has been an exciting adventure since its start in 2016, but it would not have been successful without the incredible contributions of our mentors. Over the years, the project has partnered with faculty at ASU, as well as personnel at JPL, NASA Wallops, NASA Kennedy, and Nanoracks in order to develop something that aims to have a positive and lasting impact on our environment for generations to come.

Want to learn more about the Phoenix CubeSat, and view the data that we collect from space? Visit our website at: