Minimize SeaHawk-1

SeaHawk-1 CubeSat Ocean Color Mission

HawkEye Ocean Color Sensor    Mission Status     References

The National Research Council recently established the need to sustain and advance satellite ocean color research.1) Space observations have transformed biological oceanography, advancing knowledge of carbon and nitrogen cycling, showing how the ocean's biological processes influence climate, and allowing assessment of changes in primary production (the basis of the marine food chain). Continuous ocean color observation is also essential for monitoring the health of the marine ecosystem and its ability to sustain fisheries. Interrupting the ocean color record would hamper the work of climate scientists, fisheries and coastal resource managers, and other users ranging from the military to oil spill responders. 2) 3)

Earth observing (EO) satellite missions have typically required large spacecraft with multiple payloads, resulting in high costs. For example, the 1997 SeaStar satellite (known later as OrbView-1) with its SeaWiFS (Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor) cost more than $100 M, including the sensor, spacecraft, and launch costs. A constellation of EO CubeSats could change this, providing daily or finer temporal resolution and better spatial resolution for dramatically reduced cost.

CubeSats are small, inexpensive satellites built on a concept created by Stanford University's Space Systems Development Laboratory and California Polytechnic State University, intended to provide less-expensive access to space. SeaHawk is a CubeSat fitted with a low-cost, miniature ocean color sensor known as HawkEye that will allow fine-spatial-resolution observations of the ocean. SeaHawk's low cost, mass, and volume, and short development time should enable more similar EO missions in the future. SeaHawk will be 200 times smaller (10 x 10 x 30 cm3 versus 50 x 50 x 200 cm3) and 100 times lighter (~3 kg vs. 309 kg) than OrbView-1, with eight times finer resolution (120 m vs. 1 km) and similar SNR (signal-to-noise ratio).

Two SeaHawk CubeSats are being built over a two-year period (2015–2017) to be launched in 2018, for a cost of $1.7M. SeaHawk-1 has completed its Critical Design Review. There is no technology development involved because commercial subsystems are used throughout. SeaHawk-1 is a 3U CubeSat composed of a 2U standard bus produced by Clyde Space of Glasgow, Scotland, and a 1U HawkEye multispectral ocean color sensor.

HawkEye uses eight spectral bands with ground sample distance of about 120 m from a nominal 540 km polar orbit. HawkEye's specifications are summarized in Table 1. The red rectangle in Figure 1 shows HawkEye's nominal field of view. The system engineering approach driving SeaHawk and HawkEye is based on fitting HawkEye within a 10 cm cube with SeaWiFS radiometry at 120 m nadir resolution from an orbit altitude of 540 km over a 350 km swath. HawkEye's 120 m resolution dramatically improves imaging capabilities compared to the 1 km resolution of OrbView-1's SeaWiFS.

Band No

HawkEye band center, nm

Ltyp (typical radiance level), W/m2 µm sr

HawkEye bandwidth (BW), nm

Predicted HawkEye BW SNR

SeaWiFS specified SNR

SeaWiFS 1






SeaWiFS 2






SeaWiFS 3






SeaWiFS 4






SeaWiFS 5






SeaWiFS 6






SeaWiFS 7 (new) *






SeaWiFS 8





467 **

Table 1: HawkEye offers eight SeaWiFS spectral bands with 140 µrad instantaneous field of view per band. SNR: Signal-to-noise ratio. Ltyp: Typical radiance level

* 765 nm SeaWiFS band modified per NASA request

** SeaWiFS Ltyp = 2 HawkEye Ltyp


Figure 1: HawkEye field of view illustrated with a MODIS 4) image of the Santa Barbara channel. The field of view is approximately 350km cross-track from a 540km altitude via pushbroom scan of the 4080 pixel 120m spatial resolution linear arrays. MODIS: Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (image credit: Cloudland Instruments)

Some Background: The University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) has been funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for technology demonstration as “proof of concept” for the development of a “game-changer” in the method to collect and disseminate Ocean Color Data via the use of Nanosatellites. The goal of this project is to enhance the ability of the earth sciences to observe ocean color in high temporal and spatial resolution modes through the use of a low-cost, next-generation, miniature ocean color sensor flown aboard a CubeSat. A CubeSat is a type of nanosatellite with volumes in multiples of 3.0 liter (30cm3), and typically uses commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components for its electronics. Our team is under contract to develop, construct, launch and operate the SeaHawk CubeSat with a HawkEye Ocean Color Sensor. UNCW will be one of the only non-governmental operators of an Environmental Remote Sensing Satellite — data will be handled by NASA and made available from UNCW to the International Ocean Color Community. 5)

Ocean color satellites provide a unique vantage point for observing the changing biology in the surface ocean. SeaWiFS, which finished its remarkable 13-year mission in 2011, “set-the-bar” transforming biological oceanography and providing data critical to advance our knowledge of how such changes affect important elemental cycles, such as the carbon and nitrogen cycles, and how the ocean’s biological processes influence the climate system and allow us to monitor the biological consequences of that change - to see how the things we do, and how natural variability, affect the Earth's ability to support life and assess changes in primary production, which forms the base of the marine food chain. Using nanotechnology, we constructed an instrument with 8 times the resolution and with a development time and construction cost of both approximately 10% that of SeaWiFS.


Figure 2: Artist's rendition of the SeaHawk-1 satellite on-orbit (image credit: AAC Clyde Space)

Mission Summary 6)

• The goal of the program is to construct and demonstrate the potential scientific applications of two high resolution (~120 m) ocean color instruments to be carried by two 3U (10 cm x 10 cm x 30 cm) CubeSat Platforms:

- ÅCC Clyde (Glasgow, Scotland) provided the CubeSat bus named SeaHawk

- Cloudland Instruments (California) provided the Hawkeye Sensor

• The Program was funded in 2014 by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

• The program is administered by Dr. John Morrison – UNCW

• NASA provided “advice and review” during the development phase and with formal NASA/HQ Space Act Agreement (2017), will provide services for the collection, processing, calibration, validation, archive and distribution of the data.

• A second Moore Foundation grant was awarded in 2017 to provide the funds for another commercial launch for the second CubeSat and operations of both spacecraft and instruments for a duration of 2 years each.

• In 2021, the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography joint the team, Dr. Sara Rivero-Calle's team will be co-leading the Science Program and Mission Management.

Mission parameters 7)

Launched: 3 December 2018 8)

• Nominal orbital height = 575 km

• Sun-synchronous around 10:30 a.m.

• 9-day repeat orbit

• Baseline orbital lifetime of 1 year (18-24 month)

• Baseline of 15 scenes per day (200 x 600 km of approximately 120 meter resolution - 100 MB/scene)

• X-band downlink (Wallops & Alaska) data rate of 6 - 100 Mbit/s

• Weight

- Instrument: less than 1 kg

- Total (spacecraft plus instrument): <5 kg

• Off-the-shelf CCD arrays

• Sensitivity comparable to SeaWiFS

• Open intellectual property and knowledge sharing.

SeaHawk Subsystems

• Power subsystem:

- Clyde Space 3G EPS Motherboard with a Flex daughterboard

- 3G 30 Whr Clyde Space battery

- Solar arrays

• Communication subsystem:

- VHF uplink at 1200 baud/s and UHF downlink at 9.6 kbaud/s

- Syrlinks X-band transmitter (3-50 Mbaud/s / 6-100 Msample/s)

• On-Board computer:

- Clyde Space OBC provides up to 1.8 GB payload data storage

• ADCS (Attitude Determination & Control Subsystem):

- Clyde Space ADCS Motherboard

- Sensors: Course sun sensors, three 2-axis fine sun sensors, magnetometers, rate gyroscopes, GPS

- Actuators: Three-axis reaction wheels, three-axis magnetometers (MTQ)


Figure 3: SeaHawk internal configuration (image credit: NASA)

HawkEye Ocean Color Sensor

The sensor was designed and developed by Cloudland Instruments of Goleta, California with Alan Holmes as PI.

Objectives and benefits: Develop a miniaturized multispectral ocean color imager of SeaWiFS caliber capable of flight on a CubeSat with significantly higher spatial resolution than standard satellite systems, providing observation of sub-mesoscale variability giving insights into mixing dynamics that are poorly understood. High spatial resolution imagery would improve our ability to monitor fjords, estuaries, coral reefs and other near-shore environments where anthropogenic stresses are often most acute and where there are considerable security and commercial interests. Due to low volume, mass and cost, it would become practical to fly constellations of spacecraft, opening up opportunities to significantly improve temporal sampling. The prospect of 10s, if not 10 s of very small Earth Observation spacecraft opens up the possibility of achieving a plethora of science, commercial and military objectives.

Proposed work: Develop, construct, and test a low-cost, multispectral, ocean color sensor with spatial characteristics comparable to SeaWiFS, capable of collection of near-synoptic color data in open-ocean to coastal-margin to near-shore terrestrial environment. The sensor would have the capability of collection of the 8 SeaWiFS bands and be designed with form factor fit into a custom 3U (i.e., 3 Units of 10 cm3) CubeSat; have spatial resolution of 75-150 m and swath of 250-400 km in a 400 - 540 km LEO orbit. It would be built using Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) parts without higher level screening such as typically employed for longer-lived spacecraft instruments.


Figure 4: HawkEye sensor mechanical design concept (image credit: Cloudland Instruments, UNCW) 9)

The HawkEye instrument, flown onboard the SeaHawk CubeSat, was optimized to provide high quality, high resolution imagery (120 meter) of the open ocean, coastal zones, lakes, estuaries and land features. This ability provides a valuable complement to the lower resolution measurements from previous missions like SeaWiFS, MODIS and VIIRS. The SeaHawk CubeSat mission is a partnership between NASA and the University of North Carolina, Wilmington (UNCW), Cloudland Instruments and AAC-Clyde Space and is funded by the Moore Foundation under a grant for the Sustained Ocean Color Observations with Nanosatellites (SOCON). 10)

Mission status

• April 18, 2022: The SeaHawk satellite is both a throwback to a previous era and a glimpse of the future. 11)

- In the early days of the Space Age, scientists and engineers built and launched hardware quickly and often—a trial-and-error process that helped them experiment with new measurements and designs. Nearly every mission was a proof-of-concept. Though the headlines today focus on larger and more expensive craft, moments of edgy ingenuity continue today. Launched in December 2018, SeaHawk was an experimental craft that went into orbit with a lot to prove.

- In a future envisioned by some engineers, satellites could be much smaller and less expensive, with constellations of shoebox-sized spacecraft collectively doing the work once done by refrigerator- or car-sized missions. Some of them will be built in public-private partnerships. The past few years have brought launches of such CubeSats and SeaHawk is part of that new lineage.

- SeaHawk is a very small satellite designed to monitor ocean color and coastal ecosystems. It measures just 10 cm by 10 cm by 30 cm, a 3U CubeSat, and flies in a polar orbit at 585 km (363 miles) in altitude. The mission was funded by private grants and the hardware was built and managed by a team from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, Cloudland Instruments, and AAC-Clyde Space. NASA scientists assisted in the development and have since worked to integrate the data with other ocean color datasets.


Figure 5: The natural-color images above were acquired on March 3-8, 2022, by the HawkEye sensor aboard the SeaHawk CubeSat. Though SeaHawk’s orbit around the Earth changes each day by a few degrees of longitude, mission operators were able to observe the same patch of the Australian coastline for six consecutive days by slightly tilting the satellite on each new overpass (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using SeaHawk/HawkEye imagery courtesy of Alan Holmes and Gene Feldman, NASA's Ocean Color Web. Story by Michael Carlowicz, with reporting from Joseph M. Smith, NASA EOSDIS Science Writer)

- According to longtime NASA ocean scientist Gene Feldman, the team initially set out to prove that it is possible to collect scientifically sound ocean color data from a CubeSat. Having achieved that over the past year, the SeaHawk team has raised its sights. They are now working to prove that they can gather observations of the same patch of water on multiple consecutive days.


Figure 6: Tiny Dancer: The SeaHawk CubeSat in Orbit (image credit: SeaHawk project)

- There was a time when scientists thought it was sufficient, almost revolutionary, to acquire broad images of the ocean once every few days. They were beginning to see the ocean on a broad scale, sketching out the big patterns and rhythms. But today they want fine details, Feldman noted. Where once it was sufficient to say: “the ocean blooms with phytoplankton around this time of year,” now scientists want to see what is happening daily, sometimes hourly, as conditions quickly evolve. In the case of toxic algal blooms in coastal waters or inland lakes, such information is important to the safety of humans and fisheries. Daily measurements can also be useful to researchers working from ships as they study a particular area or even a moving feature in the ocean.

- Other ocean-observing satellite instruments—such as the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS), the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), or the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS)—can observe much of the ocean every day. But because they look straight down at the planet, the reflection of sunlight off the water (sunglint) can make it difficult to distinguish color and features. By observing from an angle, SeaHawk has removed those light effects.

- The tiny HawkEye imager on SeaHawk also observes with significantly greater spatial resolution than MODIS and VIIRS—as much as ten times more detail. And the imager is calibrated to the unique light properties of the ocean, which tend to be darker than landforms; such differences often lead other imagers to capture coastal land details while making it hard to see much in the water.

- HawkEye has collected more than 4,000 images since launch and is currently collecting about 100 new images per week. That data is being integrated and archived with other NASA ocean color data sets—likely a first for any CubeSat mission. The team accepts imaging requests from members of the science community, and they continue to stretch the limits of multiple-day repeat imaging.

- “Our goal from the beginning was to integrate this mission into the infrastructure that we have built over the past 25 years to support ocean color satellites,” Feldman said, “and to demonstrate that a CubeSat can be treated like a normal, credible scientific mission. We have proven that, and we never dreamed this little satellite would still be operating after three years, let alone demonstrating new capabilities that we had never envisioned during development. And because they are smaller and less expensive, it will be easier to quickly adapt the second and third generations of CubeSats in a series to take advantage of what we have learned.”

• November 26, 2021: The Namib Desert in southwestern Africa is considered the oldest desert on Earth. It also gives rise to some of the planet’s tallest dunes. 12)


Figure 7: Many of the highest dunes are found within the Namib Sand Sea, a section of the desert that spans 34,000 km2 (13,000 square miles) of coastal Namibia. The sand sea and its dunes are visible in this image, acquired on January 20, 2020, with the HawkEye sensor on the SeaHawk CubeSat (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, NASA image by Alan Holmes/NASA’s Ocean Color Web, using data from SeaHawk/HawkEye. Photo courtesy of pxfuel. Story by Kathryn Hansen)


Figure 8: The oldest desert on Earth also gives rise to some of the planet’s tallest dunes. Detail image of Figure 7 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

- Most of the sand originated from erosion processes that occur to the south of this image, near the Orange River valley. The Orange River carries sandy sediment into the Atlantic Ocean, and then northward flowing currents move it along the coast and deposit it along the shore. Strong prevailing winds out of the south also can pick up sand and deliver it to the sand sea.


Figure 9: Sculpted by winds, the dunes are visible throughout the sand sea. Crescent (barchan) dunes appear closest to the shore and are shaped by onshore winds. Farther inland, linear dunes dominate, interrupted in places by patches of star dunes shaped by wind blowing from all directions. Dune 45, visible in the detailed image above and the photograph below, is an example of a star dune. Composed of 5-million-year-old sands, Dune 45 towers 80 meters (260 feet) over the desert floor on the eastern flank of the sand sea (Photo courtesy of pxfuel)

- Other large dunes—including the sand sea’s tallest, a 325-meter (1,065-foot) dune nicknamed Big Daddy—line the bed of the Tsauchab River. The Tsauchab originates in the Naukluft Mountains, then cuts across the sand sea before coming to an end at Sossusvlei, a salt and clay pan about 40 km (25 miles) from the sand sea’s eastern flank. Like most rivers and streams in the region, the Tsauchab is ephemeral. Water tends to flow in the Tsauchab and pool up in Sossusvlei every few years or so, generally after a rare heavy rainstorm. In the 2020 view (Figure 8), the riverbed and clay pans are dry. White areas are likely salt.

- Still, life has found a unique way to survive even without much rain. Fog is the primary source of water for the Namib Sand Sea, which is the only coastal desert in the world to contain large dune fields influenced by fog. This moisture results in relatively abundant and diverse vegetation, particularly on the rocky hills or mountains (inselbergs) that rise above the desert.

• September 6, 2021: Where the Netherlands meets the North Sea, there is an impressive confluence of natural and man-made features. Much of the human-made infrastructure is designed to keep rising seas out of the low-lying country. The landscape carved by nature is a hotspot for plants and animals taking advantage of the nutrient-rich wetlands. 13)

- The Netherlands has long been shaped by floods and by efforts to hold back the sea. A spine-like archipelago known as the West Frisian Islands protects the mainland of the country. Just to the south lies the world’s largest system of unbroken mud flats, known as the Wadden Sea. Harbor seals, Eurasian spoonbills, and 10,000 other species of flora and fauna depend on these mudflats for migration and feeding.

- The Wadden Sea used to be connected to the bay to the south—known as the Zuiderzee—until the construction of the 32-kilometer (20-mile) Afsluitdijk in 1932. Designed to protect the Netherlands from rising seas, the dam also created a freshwater lake known as Lake Ijssel.

- Cutting part the Zuiderzee off from the North Sea allowed the Dutch to reclaim some of the shallow wetlands behind the dam. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management surrounded the wetlands east of Amsterdam with dikes and drained them for agriculture using wind power. The land created from the diking and draining of wetlands is known as a polder. Roughly 1,620 km2 (620 square miles) of land has been reclaimed this way. Collectively, this human-made system of dams, dikes, and polders is known as the Zuiderzee Works.

- The Wadden Sea provides a critical resting and feeding place for millions of birds as they make their yearly migration along the East Atlantic Flyway. Since 2009 the area has been listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization because of its unique ecology and importance to biodiversity.


Figure 10: This image was acquired on June 1, 2021, by the multispectral HawkEye sensor aboard the SeaHawk CubeSat. SeaHawk is a new nanosatellite designed to monitor phytoplankton by measuring the color of the ocean and coastal ecosystems. Phytoplankton are the foundation of food webs in marine ecosystems, and they also play a large role in the global carbon cycle by consuming about 24 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (image credit: NASA image by Alan Holmes/NASA's Ocean Color Web, using data from SeaHawk/HawkEye. Story by Emily Cassidy)

- Previous satellite instruments designed to measure global ocean color, such as the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS), had lower spatial resolution and the large pixels made research of marine and coastal environments challenging. SeaHawk was designed to fill this void by providing data with eight times the spatial resolution of SeaWiFS. This small satellite only recently began routine operations but has already proven to be a low-cost way to measure ocean color in coastal ecosystems.

• August 16, 2021: Algae made headlines around the world in June 2008 when an enormous bloom choked the coastal waters off Qingdao, China, the site of sailing events for that year’s Olympic Games. More than 700,000 tons of algae were cleared in time for competition that year, but similar “green tides” have returned every summer. In June 2021, algal slicks painted the Yellow Sea bright green during the region’s largest bloom on record. 14)

- The species in the image is Ulva prolifera, a common green macroalgae (seaweed) that is not toxic to people or marine life; in fact, this “sea lettuce” is edible and nutritious. But long mats of it can still have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems. For example, decaying algae can deplete water of oxygen and cause “hypoxic” conditions that cause fish kills. The mounds of seaweed that wash up along the coastline can be unsightly and costly to remove.

- According to Lin Qi, a remote sensing and marine scientist at University of South Florida (USF), blooms of Ulva prolifera typically start showing up in the western Yellow Sea in May, peak in June, and persist into July or August. Satellites have observed such blooms every year since 2007, with the first significant bloom reported in 2008.

- The size of U. prolifera blooms fluctuates from year to year, but they have generally been increasing in size since 2012. Qi calculated that the bloom spanned more than 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) in June 2021—30 percent larger than the previous record in 2019.

- Chuanmin Hu, also a marine scientist at USF, noted that most researchers agree that blooms of U. Prolifera originate around the vast aquaculture operations to the south off of Jiangsu Province. Notice the dark green slicks in the turbid water at the bottom of the wide image; according to Hu, these are the initial populations of seaweed.

- Winds, tides, and human activity can cause some seaweed to detach from aquaculture rafts or other hosts. Currents and winds then can then carry them north to clearer water off Shandong Province, where ample light and nutrients fuel their growth into massive blooms.


Figure 11: The recent bloom is visible in this natural-color image, acquired on June 19, 2021, with the Hawkeye sensor on the SeaHawk CubeSat. Images from SeaHawk and other satellites help scientists document the origin and distribution of blooms in the region as they work to untangle the factors causing the large outbreaks (image credit: NASA image by Alan Holmes/NASA’s Ocean Color Web, using data from SeaHawk/HawkEye. Story by Kathryn Hansen)


Figure 12: Detail image of Seaweed (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

- Hu, Qi and other researchers are investigating what causes the inter-annual changes, but accurate estimates can be challenging. “This is more difficult than for many other blooms because human mitigation efforts can affect the evolution of a bloom within a season,” Hu said. But satellites like SeaHawk are making that task a bit easier.

- “What’s really unique in this image is its optimal combination of coverage and resolution,” Hu said. “There are other satellite sensors that show the same bloom, but they are either too coarse in resolution or too narrow in coverage (with the exception of Sentinel-2 sensors). The HawkEye image shows the U. Prolifera slicks so vividly in one image, which can certainly reduce uncertainties when estimating bloom size.”

• August 9, 2021: When viewed from above, the red landscapes found in the center of Australia can make you think you are looking at Mars. Red and orange dominates this natural-color image acquired by the HawkEye sensor on the SeaHawk CubeSat, for instance. 15)

- All of these features lie on Aboriginal land and are considered sacred. According to the mythology of the Anangu people, blood spilled during a fierce battle between two deities — one that had taken the form of a gecko and the other in the form of a dingo — turned the landscape of Uluru and its surroundings red.

- Geologists have a different explanation. In their telling, many of the rocks in this area contain significant amounts of iron-bearing minerals that become red as they rust due to exposure to oxygen. As small bits erode and flake off from their source rocks, red particles accumulate in the soils over time. Their presence gives the area's deserts their striking hues.

- The presence of vegetation also influences the colors seen in the image. Areas with more vegetation generally appear darker and browner than those without much plant life. Some of the brightest red and orange areas likely burned in recent years, exposing the colorful soils more clearly.

- Weighing just 5 pounds, the toaster-sized SeaHawk CubeSat is considerably smaller than previous satellite missions that have measured ocean color, such as NASA’s SeaWiFS mission. But despite its size, the multispectral HawkEye sensor on board will provide ocean color data and imagery of gulfs, bays, fjords, estuaries, and other shallow coastal areas with eight times the resolution of SeaWiFS.

- The low cost of the mission means that it could eventually become practical to operate constellations of tens to hundreds of similarly-equipped SeaHawk CubeSats at once to provide more continuous and comprehensive monitoring of coastal areas.


Figure 13: Soils in the center of the continent—including those around the famous rock formations of Uluru and Kata-Tjuta—come in striking shades of red. The HawkEye image of the SeaHawk mission (observed on 20 June 2021) highlights the vivid red deserts around Australia's Uluru and Kata-Tjuta famous rock formations in the southern part of Northern Territory. The white salt pan of Lake Amadeus lies just to the north, as well as Lake Neale. They are part of a line of salt lakes that stretch hundreds of kilometers from Lake Hopkins in the west to the Finke River in the east (image credit: NASA image by Alan Holmes/NASA's Ocean Color Web, using data from SeaHawk/HawkEye. Story by Adam Voiland)

• June 24, 2021: ÅAC Clyde Space has received a 135 k USD order to continue operating the SeaHawk-1 satellite from the company’s Operations Center in Glasgow, Scotland, for a further 12 months. 16) 17)

- The satellite, launched in 2018 is part of a partnership between the University of North Carolina Wilmington and NASA, observes the changing biology of the ocean surface and features a compact, multi-spectral camera (HawkEye) developed by Cloudland Instruments. The images captured by the camera are used to analyze the color of the ocean and thus determine the quality of the water.

- The satellite is operated from ÅAC Clyde Space’s Glasgow Operations Center, with instrument data downloaded to NASA Wallops facility, through the satellite’s X-band downlink. The data is integrated into NASA’s SeaWiFS Data Analysis System (SeaDAS) and is distributed worldwide. Initially, Operations will focus on providing free access to all data that has been collected and processed from mid-April 2021 to the International Ocean Color Community. The satellite is expected to produce around 100 images per week. Data generated enables a greater understanding of the marine food chain, oceanic climate, fisheries and pollution phenomena, enabling to support the health and sustainability of our oceans.

- SeaHawk-1, a 3U CubeSat, is a follow-on mission from the highly successful SeaWiFS (Sea-Viewing Wide field-of-View Sensor) mission, launched in 1997. For more than 20 years, SeaHawk-1 has been able to replicate the performance of the SeaWiFS mission except it is approximately 100 times smaller and lighter and, therefore, more economical, ensuring long term viability of high-quality science missions.

- “It has been quite an experience working with Clyde Space on the design, construction, launch, commissioning, and now operations of SeaHawk-1. As our partners at Clyde Space said when we started on this venture, this satellite is arguably one of the most sophisticated 3U CubeSats ever conceived. We have just commissioned a satellite the size of a shoebox that’s travelling at 7.5 km/s, at an altitude of about 600km with a better downlink rate than the broadband into my house providing scientific quality data on ocean ecology,” said John M. Morrison, UNCW Principal Investigator.

- “AAC Clyde Space are delighted to continue to support the SeaHawk-1 mission. Academia, government agencies and industry are joining forces like never before to improve environmental surveillance and generate reliable data, filling in the gaps of our understanding for informed decision making. SeaHawk-1 is a prime example of this, Sustained Ocean Color Monitoring is vital to understanding the marine ecosystem and in turn climate change,” said AAC Clyde Space CEO, Luis Gomes.

• As of June 21st 2021, SeaHawk-1 Cubesat outfitted with the HawkEye Ocean Color Imager has completed on-orbit “Commissioning” and is entering into a period of phased startup of “Operations"! (Ref. 5).

- Hawkeye imagery will be made available free of charge via the NASA Ocean Biology Distributed Active Archive Center (OB.DAAC) on NASA’s Ocean Color Website In addition, NASA’s free software package for the processing, display and analysis of ocean color data known as SeaDAS ( has been updated to include support for HawkEye.

• March 22, 2019: The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) together with NASA, AAC Clyde Space, Cloudland Instruments, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, is pleased to announce the successful acquisition and retrieval of SeaHawk-1 CubeSat’s first ocean color image from space. On March 22nd, it was downlinked via X-band from the SeaHawk-1 CubeSat to the ground station at NASA Wallops and immediately transferred to NASA Goddard, where it was processed. 18)


Figure 14: This first SeaHawk-1 engineering test image was captured by the HawkEye instrument on March 21st, 2019 at 18:47 UT from an altitude of 588 km and superimposed on Google Map data © 2019 Google, INEGI. At the current altitude that SeaHawk is flying, the pixel resolution of the HawkEye instrument is approximately 130 meters (425 feet) giving us an image size of approximately 6000 lines along track (780 km or 485 mi) x 1800 pixels across track (234 km or 145 mi), image credit: UNCW, AAC Clcde Space, NASA)


Figure 15: The true color full resolution closeup of the region from south of Monterey Bay to north of San Francisco was produced by combining three of the Hawkeye bands (red band-6 (670 nm), green band-5 (555 nm) and blue band-2 (443 nm), image credit: UNCW, AAC Clyde Space, NASA)


Figure 16: Another view of Monterey Bay in which a slightly different combination of three bands (red band 6 (670 nm), green band 5 (555 nm) and blue band 3 (490 nm) were used to bring out some of the features that can be seen in the water (image credit: UNCW)


Figure 17: Crorophyll-a concentration (image credit: UNCW, AAC Clyde Space, NASA)

Mission and Spacecraft

SeaHawk-1 is a 3U CubeSat (size 30 x 10 x 10 cm with a mass of ~5 kg) designed and built by AAC Clyde Space and launched on 3 December 2018 aboard SpaceX Falcon 9. The SeaHawk-1 CubeSat was one of the 64 satellites included in the Spaceflight SSO-A Small Sat Express: their first dedicated ride-share mission for small satellites. SeaHawk-1 is also the first 3U CubeSat specifically designed to carry an ocean color instrument payload (HawkEye). The goal of this proof-of-concept mission is to provide free high-spatial resolution images of Earth’s coastal regions. HawkEye, designed by Cloudland Instruments, is an 8-band multispectral instrument similar to SeaWiFS (one of the most successful ocean color missions to date). It differs in that: it was miniaturized (10 x 10 x 10 cm) to fit inside the CubeSat, band 7 was modified to improve atmospheric correction, all bands were designed not to saturate over land, and the entire sensor was built with low-cost, off-the-shelf materials. But one of the biggest contributions of SeaHawk-1 is its 130-meter spatial resolution. This high resolution (~8 times better than SeaWiFS or standard global ocean color satellites) ocean color imagery will resolve sub-mesoscale features and will advance our understanding of key coastal processes and ecosystems. Some examples of potential areas of application include early detection of harmful algal blooms, glacier dynamics, threatened coral reefs, storm water runoffs, etc., all of which have direct impact in human well-being or livelihood. SeaHawk-1 follows a sun-synchronous orbit an altitude of ~590 km, orbiting 15-times a day with a current repeat time of about 18-days. SeaHawk-1 is one of two identical CubeSats, and SeaHawk-2 is expected to be launched within the next year, potentially reducing the time needed to re-image any given location. Once SeaHawk-1 is fully commissioned and begins operations, data will be available at no cost through NASA’s Ocean Biology Processing Group ( and UNCW ( In the near future, the scientific community will also be able to submit requests for image acquisition (e.g. for field support) through UNCW ( ). This project is funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through Grant GBMF4526 to UNCW at Wilmington, Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography and Space Act Agreement 450-AGMT-0149 between NASA and UNCW.

UNCW's Satellite Oceanography Lab

Faculty members from the Department of Physical Oceanography and the students from UNCW's Student CubeSat Lab participated in the joint telecon on Friday, when the first image was downlinked to the ground station at NASA Wallops. The UNCW CubeSat Lab is a newly formed student association that was born in 2018 as a result of the genuine interest in the project by some students from UNCW's Master's Degree in Data Science. The students are now involved in several projects under the guidance of advisors from the Department of Physical Oceanography and the Data Science Program. Students in the UNCW CubeSat Club presented a poster at the First NC Space Grant Student Symposium in April 2019.


Figure 18: Faculty members Prof. Till Wagner, Prof. Frederick Bingham and Dr. Sara Rivero Calle celebrating the succesful retrieval of SeaHawk-1's first light image with the students from UNCW's CubeSat Lab (image credit: UNCW)

Our Counterparts

The target location for the first light image was discussed with the entire SeaHawk team. The decision was based on certain requisites that included: a latitudinal range between 20-40 degrees, low probability of cloud cover or sun glint, a combination of land and ocean, and the CubeSat path. NASA Goddard, MD then scheduled the image acquisition and was in charge of processing the raw data up to level 1-A with the assistance of Cloudland Instruments and AAC Clyde Space.


Figure 19: Left: Gene Carl Feldman, Liang Hong and Alicia Scott scheduling the first image acquisition at NASA Goddard. Right: Image processing group at NASA Goddard analyzing the first HawkEye image within minutes of the downlink (image credit: NASA)

Meanwhile NASA’s Near-Earth Network (NEN) ground station in Wallops, VA was in charge of downlinking the image from the CubeSat via X-Band and sending it to NASA Goddard for processing.


Figure 20: On the left you can see the location of SeaHawk-1 during the overpass and on the right, a picture of the signal received at NASA Wallops. On the bottom right there is a picture of a similar test done during the first overpass of the SeaWiFS mission 22 years earlier! (image credit: NASA)

1) C. F. Schueler, James A. Yoder, David Antoine, C. E. del Castillo, Robert H. Evans, C. Mengelt, Curtis Mobley, JimenaSarmiento, S. Sathyendranath, D. A. Siegel, Cara Wilson, ”Assessing the Requirements for Sustained Ocean Color Research and Operations,” National Academies Press, Washington DC, 2011, The National Academies Press,

2) Carl Schueler, Alan Holmes, ”Monitoring coastal ocean color with low-cost CubeSats,” SPIE, 13 September 2011, URL:

3) Carl Schueler, Alan Holmes, ”SeaHawk CubeSat system engineering,” Proceedings of SPIE, Vol. 9977, 'Remote Sensing System Engineering VI; 99770A, 19 September 2016,', Event: SPIE Optical Engineering + Applications, 2016, San Diego, California, United States

4) T. S. Pagano, R. M. Durham, ”Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS),” Proceedings of SPIE, Vol. 1939, p. 2-17, 1993.

5) ”SOCON: Sustained Ocean Color Observations using Nanosatellites,” UNCW, 21 June 2021, URL:

6) ”SOCON: Sustained Ocean Color Observations using Nanosatellites,” UNCW News,

7) ”SeaHawk Mission Summary,” NASA/GSFC, URL:

8) ”ÅAC Microtec confirms successful launch of SeaHawk-1, ground-breaking ocean health monitoring CubeSat,” AAC Clyde Space Press Releases, 04 December 2018, URL:

9) ”HawkEye Ocean Color Sensor,” SOCON: Sustained Ocean Color Observations using Nanosatellites,” UNCW, URL:

10) ”HawkEye-SeaHawk,” NASA, URL:

11) ”The Little Satellite That Could,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 18 April 2022, URL:

12) ”Namib Sand Sea,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 26 November 2021, URL:

13) ”Zuiderzee Works,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 6 September 2021, URL:

14) ”Green Seaweed in the Yellow Sea,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 16 August 2021, URL:

15) ”A Hawk’s Eye View of Australia’s Red Center,” NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day for 9 August 2021, URL:

16) ”AAC Clyde Space Receives SeaHawk-1 Smallsat Ops Renewal Contract,” Satnews, 24 June 2021, URL:

17) ”Big Things Come in Very Small Packages: A New Way of Looking at the Ocean,” UNCW, 24 June 2021, URL:

18) SOCON Announcement: ”First light image of SeaHawk-1/HawkEye,” UNCW, 22 March 2019, 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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