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QARMAN (QubeSat for Aerothermodynamic Research and Measurements on AblatioN)

Launch    Mission Status     Reentry test     References

QARMAN is a 3U CubeSat mission, led and built by the Von Karman Institute (VKI), Belgium for ESA. The objective of the mission is to demonstrate reentry technologies, particularly novel heatshield materials, new passive aerodynamic drag and attitude stabilization systems, and the transmission of telemetry data during reentry via data relay satellites in low-Earth orbit. 1)

QARMAN will incorporate an ablative Thermal Protection System (TPS) to the structure to protect the CubeSat from extreme heating during reentry. Similarly, the side panels will be thermally insulated with appropriate TPS for a prolonged functionality of the subsystems. It will also demonstrate the use of a passive de-orbiting system and also the possibility of non-powered rendezvous.


Figure 1: Illustration of the deployed QARMAN CubeSat (image credit: VKI)

Designed and manufactured for ESA by Belgium's Von Karman Institute, QARMAN will use temperature and pressure sensors together with an emission spectrometer to gather precious data on the extreme conditions of reentry as its leading edges are enveloped in scorching plasma.

QARMAN is the world's first CubeSat designed to survive atmospheric re-entry. The QARMAN project, funded by the European Space Agency, started in 2013 at the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics (VKI). QARMAN is due to be deployed from the International Space Station in 2019. It will orbit Earth for around four months before reentering the atmosphere. It will survive reentry but not its fall to Earth. Instead its data will be transmitted to Iridium telecom satellites.

The aim of the QARMAN mission is to demonstrate the usability of a CubeSat platform as an atmospheric entry vehicle. Spacecraft descending towards a planet with an atmosphere experience very harsh environment including extreme temperatures (several thousand degrees). Such vehicles have special shields to survive these harsh conditions as will QARMAN. After the success of the mission, different entry vehicle configurations (for example using different thermal protection materials) can be tested on board at very low costs for scientific exploration and qualification of future missions in order to provide valuable real flight data. In the long-term, QARMAN successors could also be used as Blackbox to study how materials and satellites degrades when re-entering the atmosphere, in order to reduce the debris falling back on Earth.

A few weeks after reaching the ISS, QARMAN will be deployed into Space and start its mission. All operations will be performed from the VKI ground station. The first weeks will be dedicated to commissioning the subsystems and verifying the good health of QARMAN. Solar panels will then be deployed to increase the drag, thus decelerate QARMAN and initiate its re-entry. After a few months in orbit, the beginning of the re-entry phase will be automatically detected by QARMAN, triggering the data acquisition. Maximum 18 minutes later, the reentry phase is over and data are communicated through Iridium before the final crash of QARMAN. The satellite will not be recovered, but no worries: the casualty risk has been carefully assessed and demonstrated to comply with all international regulations!


Figure 2: Some QARMAN images during the development process (image credit: VKI)

Launch: The QARMAN CubeSat was launched as a secondary payload on the SpX CRS-19 (Commercial Resupply-19) Dragon mission to the ISS on 5 December 2019 (17:29:24 UTC). SpaceX launched its CRS-19 mission from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. 2)

ESA's latest space mission has reached orbit. The QARMAN CubeSat flew to space aboard SpaceX's Dragon launched from Florida, USA, on Thursday 5 December, ahead of a planned rendezvous with the International Space Station on Sunday 8 December. From there, QARMAN - seen in Figure 7 during plasma wind tunnel testing – will be deployed into space in late January 2020. 3)

Secondary payloads: The following ELaNa 25B and 28 technology and demonstration missions were launched on this resupply flight, plus QARMAN of ESA.

AzTechSat-1. A 1U CubeSat technology demonstration developed by UPAEP (Universidad Popular Autonoma del Estado de Puebla) in Puebla, Mexico, that will use the low-Earth orbit satellite constellation Globalstar for satellite phone and low-speed data communications. — Note: The AzTechSat-1 mission is described in a separate file on the eoPortal.

CryoCube-1. A 3U CubeSat developed at NASA/KSC to perform cryogenic fluid management experiments. The 3U Cubesat features deployable solar arrays, which double as a solar heat shield. A second deployable heat shield will block earth's infrared radiation. Active doors will expose the cryogenic oxygen tank to space during eclipse phases.

SORTIE (Scintillation Observations and Response of The Ionosphere to Electrodynamics). The SORTIE 6U CubeSat mission is led by ASTRA LLC (Atmospheric & Space Technology Research Associates). The team is composed of ASTRA, COSMIAC, AFRL, University of Texas at Dallas and Boston College. COSMIAC will be the satellite integrator. The mission is to collect data over the course of 6 months, which will allow scientists to describe the distribution of wave-like structures in the plasma density of the ionospheric F-region and to connect these variations to wave sources in the troposphere and in the high latitude thermosphere. — Note: The SORTIE mission is described in a separate file on the eoPortal.

CIRiS (Compact Infrared Radiometer in Space). A 6U CubeSat of USU (Utah State University), Logan, UT. The objective is to raise the technology readiness level of the new uncooled detector and carbon nanotube source from level 5 to 6, enabling future reduced cost missions to study the hydrologic cycle, characterization of ocean/atmosphere interactions vegetation and land use management. The IR radiometer features a spectral range from 7-13 µm. — Note: The CIRiS mission is described in a separate file on the eoPortal.

EdgeCube. A 1U CubeSat of Sonoma State University. The objective is to take global measurements of the red edge that monitors a sharp change in leaf reflectance in the range 680 - 750 nm from changes in vegetation chlorophyll absorption and mesophyll scattering due to seasonal leaf phenology or stress. The payload consists of six pairs of photo-sensors and filters that are pointed normal to the spin axis to scan the Earth.

QARMAN. A 3U CubeSat of ESA, designed and built by VKI (Von Karman Institute), Brussels, Belgium. The objective of the mission is to demonstrate reentry technologies, particularly novel heatshield materials, new passive aerodynamic drag and attitude stabilization systems, and the transmission of telemetry data during reentry via data relay satellites in low-Earth orbit. — Note: The QARMAN is is described in a separate file on the eoPortal.

Dragon will join three other spacecraft currently at the station. On 8 December (Sunday), ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano and NASA flight engineer Drew Morgan will man the space station's Canadian-built robot arm to capture the Dragon supply ship. The robotic arm will position the Dragon spacecraft on the station's Harmony module, where astronauts will open hatches and begin unpacking the cargo inside the supply ship's internal compartment.


Status of mission

• After 5 months of in-orbit operations, QARMAN stopped transmitting on 14 July 2020. No beacon signals have been received since then. Last signals showed increasing onboard temperatures. 4)

- Our analyses show that QARMAN experienced a 4-day period of full sunlight at that time, instead of the usual alternating 1h sunlight/30 min eclipse. We are now investigating together with ESA how that would have affected the various subsystems and trying to identify the failure point and associated lessons learned. Of course, we will keep monitoring daily for QARMAN signals until the re-entry (currently estimated for January 2022).

- Initially foreseen in July 2020, the re-entry of Qarman has been delayed because the sun is experiencing an unexpected less active phase called ‘solar minimum'. In a solar minimum, the sun is much quieter, meaning less sunspots and energy. Solar ultraviolet radiation decreases, but the effect of this primarily hits the stratosphere and higher altitudes. It causes Earth's atmosphere to shrink slightly, which reduces drag on satellites, like our QARMAN CubeSat.

• On 24 March 2020, the AeroSDS panels of the nanosatellite QARMAN have correctly deployed, right on time, as foreseen. VKI has the confirmation that they positioned correctly because the solar panels, which were formerly obscured, are now receiving plenty of sunlight. With the panels open, QARMAN will stabilize itself prior to reentry. 5)

- The QARMAN team is also very happy to report that QARMAN received, acknowledged, and executed commands sent from the VKI ground station.

Next step: re-entry phase around end of August!

- ESA is supporting QARMAN through the ‘Fly' element of its long-running General Support Technology Program, providing early flight opportunities to promising technologies.

- We thank the Belgian radio amateurs from Belgium and the world, who relay the data they receive from QARMAN and share their expertise since the beginning of the mission.

• February 27, 2020: The Qarman CubeSat was deployed from the ISS by NanoRacks services on 19 February 2020. 6)


Figure 3: The moment ESA's latest mission left the International Space Station: the Qarman reentry CubeSat developed with Belgium's Von Karman Institute was deployed by NASA astronaut Andrew 'Drew' Morgan via a Nanoracks dispenser on 19 February 2020. Qarman will now fall gradually to Earth, to eventually gather valuable data on atmospheric reentry physics (image credit: NASA)

• February 12, 2020: Due to be deployed next week from the International Space Station, Qarman (QubeSat for Aerothermodynamic Research and Measurements on Ablation) will gather data on atmospheric reentry using inbuilt temperature and pressure sensors and a spectrometer. 7)

- Qarman's nose is made from aerospace-quality cork. As seen in the image here, it burns up then flakes away – but this is as intended by its designers. The loss of burnt material carries away unwanted heat with it. This ‘ablation' process is a tried and tested thermal protection method that ESA and Belgium's Von Karman Institute, the CubeSat's builder, want to investigate further.


Figure 4: The cork heat shield of ESA's Qarman CubeSat burning away in simulated atmospheric reentry conditions, during ground testing (image credit: VKI)

• February 10, 2020: ESA's latest mission will enter the vacuum of space not aboard a rocket but by being released from the International Space Station. The first task of the shoebox-sized Qarman CubeSat is simply to fall. While typical space missions resist orbital decay, Qarman will drift down month by month until it reenters the atmosphere, at which point it will gather a wealth of data on the fiery physics of reentry. 8)

- UPDATE: Qarman deployment has been postponed to the week of 17 February.

- Technically ESA's Qarman (QubeSat for Aerothermodynamic Research and Measurements on Ablation) achieved orbit on 5 December, flying as cargo on SpaceX's Dragon capsule to the ISS. The nanosatellite is a CubeSat made up of standardized 10 cm boxes: at just 30 cm in length it easily fitted aboard, stowed within the commercial Nanoracks CubeSat Deployment System.

- But soon comes the ambitious mini-mission's next giant leap. Astronaut Andrew ‘Drew' Morgan will take the Nanoracks deployer and place it thorough the airlock of Japan's Kibo module. From here the module's robotic arm – the Japanese Experimental Module Remote Manipulator System – will position the deployer for safe orientation away from the station, then Qarman will be shot into space.

- "From there we think it will take about six months to reenter the atmosphere – to find out how accurately we can forecast Qarman's orbital decay is part of the reason we're flying the mission, relevant to the study of space debris," explains Prof. Olivier Chazot, heading the Aeronautic/Aerospace Department of the Von Karman Institute in Belgium. This internationally sponsored center of excellence for fluid dynamics developed the Qarman mission in partnership with ESA's technical specialists in the Directorate of Technology, Engineering and Quality at ESTEC in the Netherlands.

Figure 5: Animation of the Qarman reentry CubeSat. Qarman's blunt-nosed front contains most of its sensors, protected by a cork-based heatshield. The CubeSat is expected to survive its reentry, although not its subsequent fall to Earth – making it imperative that its results make it back in the time in between, using the Iridium commercial satellite network (image credit: Dr. Gilles Bailet, University of Glasgow)


Reentry test of the QARMAN CubeSat

Equipped with a cork-based heatshield, titanium side walls and silicon carbide deployable panels, the QARMAN CubeSat survived six and a half minutes of testing inside Italy's Scirocco Plasma Wind Tunnel. 9)

An arc jet using up to 70 MW of power – enough to light up a town of 80,000 people – converted air into hot plasma at temperatures of several thousand degrees Celsius, which sped towards QARMAN at seven times the speed of sound.


Figure 6: Reentry CubeSat's plasma wind tunnel testing (video credit: CIRA)

"This test marked the world premiere in arc jet testing of a complete, full-scale spacecraft," explains test engineering group leader Eduardo Trifoni. "It also represents a tremendous step forward in our ground testing, since up to now only single components were tested at a time."

"The precious outcome of this test gives us confidence that the QARMAN design will indeed make it through the reentry phase," said project leader Davide Masutti of the Von Karman Institute. "The results of the real flight are now the missing element to consolidate our design strategy based on ground-testing, numerical models and flight data."


Figure 7: ESA's next CubeSat mission seen enduring the scorching heat of simulated atmospheric reentry inside the world's largest plasma wind tunnel [image credit: CIRA (Centro Italiano Ricerche Aerospaziali)]

1) "Imminent Launch of the nano-satellite QARMAN to the International Space Station," VKI, 27 November 2019, URL:

2) "SpaceX Dragon Heads to Space Station With NASA Science," NASA News, 5 December 2019, URL:

3) "New reentry CubeSat in orbit," ESA, 6 December 2019, URL:

4) "Transmission stopped after 5 months of in-orbit operations," VKI, 09 October 2020, URL:

5) "Successful Phase 2 of Qarman Deployment," VKI, 24 March 2020, URL:

6) "Qarman CubeSat deployed from ISS," ESA Enabling & Support, 27 February 2020, URL:

7) "Cork vs. reentry," ESA, 12 February 2020, URL:

8) "Qarman CubeSat: falling into a fireball," ESA / Enabling & Support / Space Engineering & Technology, 10 February 2020, URL:

9) "Reentry test of QARMAN CubeSat," ESA, 21 June 2018, URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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