Around the world 32,000 times: The Flying Laptop

July 14, 2023

In 2017, the University of Stuttgart sent its first small satellite "Flying Laptop" into space. For the purpose of scientific research, the satellite has already been in space for three times as long as originally planned. Although still fully functional, after six years its mission is now complete. But it is not time to retire yet.
[Picture: IRS / University of Stuttgart]

Measuring 60 x 70 x 87 centimeters and weighing 110 kilograms, Flying Laptop was the largest and, above all, most complex small satellite developed at a German university to date when it began its journey into space on July 14, 2017. Unique in university aerospace teaching, more than 170 students and over 25 doctoral students were involved in building the small satellite, with the support of experts from industry, making it fit for the journey into space and putting it into operation. At the time, Professor Sabine Klinkner's team would not have dared to hope that the project would serve research and teaching at the University of Stuttgart for so long and so successfully.

Flying laptop with solar panels unfolded.
With the size of a washing machine, Flying Laptop offers space for lots of technology. On board are, among other things, solar panels for energy supply, a multispectral camera and the OSIRIS data transmission system.

Six years of trouble-free operation

"Originally, the small satellite was designed to last two years," explains Klinkner. "But even now, it is still providing data from space that can be used for agriculture, for example, and important telemetry that helps us advance technologies for data transmission. This is a great endorsement of our work."

Flying Laptop proved to be highly reliable and robust and the operation was extended twice for two years periods. During its six years of operation, Flying Laptop made valuable contributions to research, such as vegetation or monitoring shipping traffic. On board are innovative technologies, such as a new type of satellite avionics and the OSIRIS laser communication terminal, which are being tested in space.

Now the project funding for Flying Laptop is coming to an end, but Klinkner assures, "Even though we're no longer fully utilizing the satellite, it's far from obsolete."

A cornerstone of space infrastructure on university campus

Although satellites are largely automated, ground infrastructure is still instrumental to satellite operations. Satellites cannot yet work on their own. "A ground station and control center were set up on Campus Vaihingen for satellite operations," says Steffen Gaisser, longtime head of satellite operations. From there, the satellite team monitors the Flying Laptop, defines the next tasks, and commands the satellite.

World map view with the trajectory of Flying Laptop.
At the ground station on the Campus Vaihingen, the team monitors the satellite, which orbits the earth about 5,000 times a year.

"We also set up a clean room for satellite integration, a thermal-vacuum chamber and a simulator for software verification and operational simulations as part of the project," said Klinkner. This infrastructure is an extremely valuable foundation for satellite technology research at the Stuttgart site and it can also be used for all subsequent missions. This also benefits our second satellite, EIVE, which has accompanied the Flying Laptop in space for the past month."

Students coordinate development and operation of the satellite

Meanwhile, Flying Laptop has been in space for 2,190 days and has orbited the Earth more than 32,000 times. This is made possible by a team of students and doctoral researchers, who monitor the satellite - initially around the clock in multi-shift operation, then increasingly automated.

From the very beginning, the development, construction, operation and monitoring of the satellite were in the hands of the young scientists at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering and Geodesy at the University of Stuttgart - a mammoth task that they mastered brilliantly. "For the undergraduate and doctoral researchers, Flying Laptop has been and will remain a great way to apply the knowledge they have gained from their studies. Such intensive project work is a unique and very valuable experience," says Klinkner.

Team photo, people wave to the camera, in their middle the satellite Flying Laptop
Klinkner's team in the clean room at the Institute of Space Systems.

The students were able to put the knowledge gained in lectures directly into practice: With Flying Laptop, they were able to plan, carry out and evaluate their own Earth observation project. "Flying Laptop is an excellent project for getting students excited about space travel and giving them the opportunity to gain experience in a space project whilst still at university," explains Gaisser.

Still in use for teaching purposes

In addition to the actual mission objectives, Flying Laptop has also been involved in other lucrative research projects. Operations are now being slowly reduced. But as long as the satellite is fully operational, the OSIRIS laser terminal it contains will continue to operate in cooperation with the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Flying Laptop also remains available to students for hands-on operational experience.

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