Unicorn 2 - 3p PocketQube (EM) and 96p Picosat Orbital Deployer (POD)


The starting objective of this project was to design, develop and test an advanced 3p (1p = 5cm cube) PocketQube with increased power and active pointing capabilities suitable for the In-Orbit Demonstration/In-Orbit Verification market, as well as a 96p PocketQube Orbital Deployer for batch launches of PocketQubes. An integrated payload also helps to demonstrate the platform’s capability as a commercial turnkey, customisable solution.


The primary issues with projects such as this are driven by the small size of the satellite in question. Nanosatellites have begun to address the issues of scale, but the even smaller form factor of picosatellites such as this causes further issues.

Primarily the challenge with a PocketQube is an issue that affects even much larger satellites, i.e. power. This relates to the use of solar panels and batteries to generate and store all the electrical energy needed to operate the satellite, including its subsystems and payload, through the orbit. Decreasing the size of the satellite necessitates either new technologies of power generation/storage, or reduction in both of these requirements.

The second challenge is the reduction in allowable payload, which is limited in both size and weight, in a similar way as to the satellite itself. To perform similar activities to a larger satellite requires miniaturisation of the payload. Depending on the particular application this can be extremely difficult, as some such as high-power optics can have physical laws as limiting factors in certain aspects.


The primary benefit of this project and future development leading from it, is that access to space is democratised. This is due to the much lower financial cost of launching a picosatellite rather than even a CubeSat, which allows the benefits that this can bring to much smaller companies and academia to be realised. These types of groups and organisations can currently not afford the outlay and financial risk of a project such as a larger satellite. The cost of getting a CubeSat into space is currently around half a million USD, whereas with picosatellites it is predicted that the final comparable figure will be much more achievable for small organisations, or justifiable for large organisations that want to build a constellation of these.


The satellite under development has several features which marks it out as being particularly special in the picosatellite class. The first of these is the ADCS which allow the satellite to target itself towards the Earth, becoming the first satellite of a 3P size to achieve this capability. The second aspect of the satellite, which is particularly impressive, is that it will also be the first of this size to include and ADS-B receiver, allowing it to track the movement of aircraft in flight.

To accommodate these showcase capabilities, further development is taking place to improve other technical capabilities over that of previous picosatellites. These improvements include greater power generation, improved power efficiency and a higher data throughput. All of these features combined result in a step-change in the capabilities and applications of picosatellites, necessitating a change in thinking of the satellite industry.

System Architecture

Unicorn 2 has a similar architecture to Alba Orbital’s previous product Unicorn-1, though this is modified from a 2p size to a 3p size. This increase in size allows extra features to be added, such as the ADCS and the ADS-B receiver. 


The project has 3 milestones:

MS1 – Satisfactory completion of PDR – End March 2017

MS2 – Mid-Term Review – January 2018

MS3 – Final Review - June 2018

Current status

As of January 2017, the project team has been assembled and has started work on the initial requirements flow-down and preliminary ideas for the design of the picosatellite. This has particularly focused on lessons learned from the first PocketQube that Alba Orbital constructed, which will help to ensure that this project runs on time with less technical risk.


ESA Contacts

Status date

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 - 10:11