Minimize RACE

RACE (Radiometer Atmospheric CubeSat Experiment)

RACE is a technology demonstration nanosatellite mission of NASA/JPL and UTA (University of Texas, Austin). The goal is to demonstrate state-of-the-art microwave radiometer receiver technology on a 3U CubeSat platform. RACE will fly a water vapor radiometer selected for implementation under the NASA HOPE-3 (Hands-On Project Experience-3) small-scale program. In this setup, JPL is developing the radiometer, while UTA is providing the CubeSat bus. 1)

Note: The RACE mission was initially named CHARM (CubeSat Hydrometric Atmospheric Radiometer Mission). 2) 3)

The mission objectives are:

• To advance the technology of the 35 nm indium phosphide (InP) receiver subsystem of the radiometer instrument.

• To advance the technology of a 183 GHz water vapor radiometer CubeSat system.

• To reduce the risk for future users of the technology.

• To enhance the hands-on training for the RACE project team members within the Phaeton Program platform.

• To explore possibilities for smaller missions with distributed risks.


A radiometer within a CubeSat platform has the potential to revolutionize systems by moving from the traditional large scale missions (risky and expensive) to various smaller missions. The SDL (Satellite Design Laboratory) at the University of Texas, Austin is designing, building, and testing the CubeSat for the RACE mission. The RACE CubeSat is a 3U nanosatellite (10 cm x 10 cm x 30 cm), and the radiometer is designed to fit within a 1.5U volume. 4)


Figure 1: Illustration of the 3U RACE CubeSat (image credit: NASA/JPL, UTA/SDL)

RACE will utilize 4 deployable solar panels and will be spinstabilized by means of an active attitude determination and control system to maintain the orbit rotation requirements. Communications will be performed using an L3 UHF Cadet radio with the ground segment at NASA Wallops.

The system block diagram shown in Figure 3 depicts the interaction of the RACE functional components. The majority of the components are of >TRL6 (Technology Readiness Level 6).


Figure 2: RACE concept of operations with relevant instrument, CubeSat and mission parameters (image credit: NASA)


Figure 3: Block diagram of the RACE bus (image credit: NASA/ARC)

Modifications include the addition of 4 deployable solar panels, replacement of the existing radio with the L3 UHF Cadet radio and addition of an active ADCS. Flight system technical margins are shown in Table 1, in which only the system mass and volume margins are under 30%. However, given the high TRL of the bus and its components, as well as ARC's experience in building nanosats, this is not expected to be an issue. The mass and volume margin allocated for the radiometer instrument is in excess of 30%.

System parameter

Mission requirement

RACE design



Payload mass

2 kg with contingency

1.5 kg without contingency


> TRL4 parts (>30% required)

Bus mass

3.52 kg with contingency

3.2 kg without contingency


High TRL parts (>10% required)

Launch mass

< 6 kg

5.5 kg incl. contingency


High TRL bus (>5% required)

Payload volume margin

< 1500 cm3

1044 cm3


> 40% for packaging

System volume

< 3000 cm3

2500 cm3


High TRL parts (standard sizes)

Energy storage

> 10.3 Wh

16.3 Wh


Max eclipse 38 minutes

Max battery DOD

< 40%



470 cycles expected

OAP harvest

> 10.3 W

13.8 W


For spinning spacecraft

Data downlink

> 48 MB/day

110.4 MB/day


2 links/day used, > 5 available

Table 1: Flight system technical margins


Figure 4: Photo of the RACE nanosatellite (upside down) after integration tests at UTA/SDL (Spacecraft Design Laboratory) on Feb. 25, 2014 (image credit: UTA)


Launch: RACE has been selected for launch by the NASA CLI (CubeSat Launch Initiative) in 2012. The RACE nanosatellite will be launched on the fourth commercial resupply mission (CRS-4) by SpaceX on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, projected for June 2014. The launch site is Cape Canaveral, FL, SLC-40.

Orbit: The nominal obit will be attainable by an ISS (International Space Station) resupply launch with an inclination of 51.6° and a nominal altitude of ~350 km. However, other orbits are also compatible. The primary mission goal is 2 months; the secondary mission goal is 1 year.

After deployment from the P-POD (Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer), RACE will extend the solar panels and enter a high drag, quasi-stable configuration, with the ADCS aiding in the initial detumble.

Once the communications link has been established, the payload will be activated and the spacecraft will then spinup to the required rotation rate. The payload antenna, positioned on one of the long faces of the spacecraft, will then perform repeated cross-track measurements of the Earth, Earth limb, and cold space. A nominal spin rate of ~30 rpm is required for continuous on the ground measurements.



Sensor complement: CHARM (CubeSat Hydrometric Atmospheric Radiometer Mission)

CHARM is a 183 GHz radiometer and ideal for the nanosatellite platform which has stringent mass, power and volume requirements. The objective is to measure microwave radiation at the 183 GHz water vapor line, which is relevant to the water cycle and Earth energy budget. Key to the instrument development is a low noise amplifier front end that utilizes the 35 nm Indium Phosphide High Electron Mobility Transfer process.


Figure 5: Illustration of the 183 GHz radiometer instrument (image credit: NASA/JPL)

The enabling technology in this effort is the NGC (Northrop Grumman Corporation) indium phosphide (InP) 35 nm HEMT (High Electron Mobility Transistor) process, which was initially developed under a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program aimed at applications above 300 GHz. NASA's ESTO (Earth Science Technology Office) has made significant investment into the technology and related instruments, and applied specifically to 183 GHz at JPL has resulted in a reduction in power while improving noise performance (Ref. 2).


Figure 6: Schematic view of the RACE radiometer payload (image credit: NASA/JPL)


Figure 7: a) InP amplifier, 900 x 560 µm2, b) 2 amplifiers and a subharmonic mixer in a package, c) packaged receiver with a penny (image credit: JPL)

Figure 7 shows the physical scale of the technology starting from the smallest building block at 900 x 560 µm2, to an intermediate stage with 2 amplifiers and a sub-harmonic mixer wire bonded, to a fully integrated receiver block that was developed internally at JPL for cosmic microwave background measurements. 5) 6) 7)

The proposed radiometer configuration is shown in Figure 8. Calibration of the radiometer will be performed by external cold space/Earth limb looks, and vicarious scene comparison combined with an extensive pre-launch testing campaign to determine the receiver characteristics over temperature. The dash-outlined block represents a custom JPL packaging that would house the InP LNAs (Low-Noise Amplifiers) and subharmonic mixer, similar to that in Figure 7c. The intermediate frequency (IF) subsystem feeds a four way splitter with band definition filters. Nominally the radiometer will measure around 183.31 GHz at ±1, 3, 4.5 and 7 GHz [4 of the 5 ATMS (Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder) 183 GHz channels on Suomi NPP].


Figure 8: Proposed 183 GHz receiver chain with four channel output (the outlined parts represent the JPL developed frontend), image credit: JPL

Minimal development is required for the configuration shown in Figure 2 as the majority of components are available COTS (Commercially off-the-Shelf) except the antenna and the JPL-developed receiver. The antenna will be based on the mature offset-parabolic design with careful attention paid to the mass and volume. The JPL developed receiver requires only minor changes to the current housing. The radiometer payload is expected to utilize a 1.5 U volume of the 3U CubeSat. The primary effort will be packaging the components into the available volume with careful consideration of the thermal environment for radiometric stability considerations.

Comparative technology assessment:

Current 183 GHz radiometer systems utilize mixer frontends with a typical noise figure of 9 dB. The CHARM receiver, utilizing the 35 nm InP MMICs (Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuits), will at minimum reduce the noise figure level of the 183 GHz receiver to 6 dB. This represents an approximate improvement to the radiometer sensitivity or the NEΔT (Noise-Equivalent Differential Temperature) by a factor of 2. CHARM will be the first mission to fly the state-of-the-art InP MMIC low power and low mass 183 GHz low noise amplifiers.



MHS (Microwave Humidity Sounder)

ATMS (Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder)






10 cm x 10 cm x 30 cm

75 cm x 70 cm x 64 cm

70 cm x 40 cm x 60 cm


3000 cm3

289.8 liter

168.0 liter


5.5 kg

50 kg

75 kg


10 W

61 W

100 W

Table 2: Summary of several RACE spacecraft parameters with the 2 recent spaceborne instruments carrying 183 GHz channels

Table 2 compares the CHARM spacecraft to two different microwave radiometer instruments currently in use. The MHS (Microwave Humidity Sounder) is a water vapor specific instrument; CHARM has 60% comparable functionality (3 of 5 shared channels) at 1% of the volume, 11% of the mass, and 16% of the power. The ATMS (Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder) is the most recent microwave radiometer instrument suite (launch Oct. 28, 2001, on Suomi NPP) with a wider range of frequencies; CHARM has 18% comparable functionality (4 of 22 shared channels) at 2% of the volume, 7% of the mass, and 10% of the power. CHARM compares favorably in performance even when comparing the entire CHARM flight system to the respective microwave instruments.


1) “Radiometer Atmospheric CubeSat Experiment (RACE),” NASA/JPL, URL:

2) Boon Lim, David Mauro, Rodolphe De Rosee, Matthew Sorgenfrei, Steve Vance, “CHARM: A CubeSat Water Vapor Radiometer for Earth Science,” Proceedings of IGARSS (International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium), Munich, Germany, July 22-27, 2012, URL:

3) Boon Lim, Michael Shearn, Douglas Dawson, Chaitali Parashare, Andrew Romero-Wolf, Damon Russell, Joel Steinkraus, “Development of the Radiometer Atmospheric CubeSat Experiment Payload,” Proceedings of IGARSS (IEEE International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium), Melbourne, Australia, July 21-26, 2013

4) “RACE - Radiometer Atmospheric CubeSat Experiment,” NASA/JPL, URL:

5) P. Kangaslahti, “Recent developments in 180 GHZ MMIC LNA and receiver technology,” 2010 11th Specialist Meeting on Microwave Radiometry and Remote Sensing of the Environment (MicroRad), Washington, D.C.,USA, March 1-4, 2010, pp. 272–275

6) Todd Gaier, Bjorn Lambrigtsen, Pekka Kangaslahti, Boon Lim, Alan Tanner, Dennis Harding, Heather Owen, Mary Soria, Ian O’Dwyer, Christopher Ruf , Ryan Miller, Bruce Block, Michael Flynn, Sterling Whitaker, ““GeoSTAR-II: A prototype water vapor imager/sounder for the PATH mission,” Proceedings of IGARSS (International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium), Vancouver, Canada, July 24-29, 2011

7) P. Voll, J. M. Lau, M. Sieth, S. E. Church, L. A. Samoska, P. P. Kangaslahti, M. Soria, T. C. Gaier, D. Van Winkle, S. Tantawi, “Development of a 150 GHz MMIC module prototype for large-scale CMB radiation experiments,” Proceedings of the SPIE, Vol. 7741, 2010, p. 77412J– 77412J–10.

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.