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PicSat: Eye on Beta Pictoris

To understand why Beta Pictoris is receiving so much attention among astronomers, particularly those specializing in exoplanets, you have only to consider a few parameters. This is a young star, perhaps 25 million years old, one with a well observed circumstellar disk, the first actually imaged around another star. We not only have a large gas giant in orbit here, but also evidence of cometary activity as seen in spectral data. β Pic is also relatively nearby at 64 light years.

Image: This composite image represents the close environment of Beta Pictoris as seen in near infrared light. This very faint environment is revealed after a careful subtraction of the much brighter stellar halo. The outer part of the image shows the reflected light on the dust disc, as observed in 1996 with the ADONIS instrument on ESO’s 3.6 m telescope; the inner part is the innermost part of the system, as seen at 3.6 microns with NACO on the Very Large Telescope. The newly detected source is more than 1000 times fainter than Beta Pictoris and aligned with the disc. Both parts of the image were obtained on ESO telescopes equipped with adaptive optics. Credit: ESO/A.-M. Lagrange et al.

Consider this star, then, a conveniently close laboratory for the study of how stellar systems form. β Pic b, about seven times as massive as Jupiter, was discovered in 2009 by a French team led by Anne-Marie Lagrange (CNRS/Université Grenoble Alpes). The planet orbits at 1.5 billion kilometers, roughly the distance of Saturn from our Sun, but there is also the possibility of other planets now in formation within the debris disk. Indeed, the observed structure of planetesimal belts here is a possible indication of smaller planets we have not yet observed.

While β Pic b was discovered by direct imaging, there are interesting transit possibilities that are now being explored by scientists at the Paris Observatory and the Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). With launch scheduled for tomorrow, PicSat is a nanosatellite built on a CubeSat platform, one containing a 5 cm telescope destined for the study of β Pic. PicSat will use no more than 5 watts of power in the attempt to view a transit of β Pic b.

Image: An artist’s impression of PicSat in orbit around the Earth. Credit and copyright: T. Pesquet ESA / NASA – LESIA / Observatoire de Paris.

We don’t have a firm idea of exactly when the transit will occur, but scientists with the project peg any time between now and the summer of this year. A transit here would last only a few hours, but it would give us information about the size of the planet, the extent of its atmosphere and its chemical composition. The beginning of a transit will trigger an alert to the 3.6 meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla site, where the HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) spectrograph can be used to study the event.

Keeping a continuous eye on β Pic to spot the beginning of the transit is thus an imperative. Transits are expected to occur only every 18 years, and indeed PicSat was designed and constructed in just three short years. Modular methodologies to the rescue as we are reminded once again that simple resources like CubeSats are capable of world-class science.

Launch is scheduled for 12 January at 0358 UTC (2258 EST) aboard an Indian PSLV launcher, with the satellite inserted into a polar orbit at an altitude of 505 kilometers, a tandem launch that will include some thirty other satellites. While the satellite will be operated from Meudon in France, a facility of the Paris Observatory, PicSat uses radio amateur bands for communication.

Citizen scientists therefore take note: The PicSat team is opening the door for radio amateurs worldwise to collaborate in tracking the satellite, receiving data and relaying them to the PicSat database over the Internet. Have a look at the PicSat website for information on how to register to become part of this ad hoc radio network and follow PicSat updates. The site has been down this morning, presumably because of last minute updates, but keep checking.

Achieving great things with small packages is becoming part of our culture, and we can wish French space agency CNES and PicSat a safe launch as it begins its one year mission. The launch will be covered live here and you can keep up with PicSat events at https://twitter.com/IamPicSat, or check out its YouTube channel.


{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Alex Tolley January 11, 2018, 15:06

    I love the idea that a cheap satellite can be a sensor to alert observations from a big telescope. What a great collaboration to make expensive resources more useful for some observations. May we see more of these.

  • ljk January 11, 2018, 15:33

    11 January 2018

    Text & Graphics:



    When exoplanet scientists first spotted patterns in disks of dust and gas around young stars, they thought newly formed planets might be the cause. But a recent NASA study cautions that there may be another explanation — one that doesn’t involve planets at all.

    Exoplanet hunters watch stars for a few telltale signs that there might be planets in orbit, like changes in the color and brightness of the starlight. For young stars, which are often surrounded by disks of dust and gas, scientists look for patterns in the debris — such as rings, arcs and spirals — that might be caused by an orbiting world.

    “We’re exploring what we think is the leading alternative contender to the planet hypothesis, which is that the dust and gas in the disk form the patterns when they get hit by ultraviolet light,” said Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

  • Thomas Tarrants January 11, 2018, 16:17

    It’s worth noting that a transit of the actual planet has been ruled out, but it’s worth monitoring the transit of its Hill sphere.


    • Paul Gilster January 11, 2018, 17:31

      Thanks, Thomas. I wasn’t aware of this paper. An especially interesting opportunity then, as the paper says, “a rare chance to probe the circumplanetary environment of a young, evolving exoplanet.” But maybe not an actual transit, at least according to this.

  • Michael Fidler January 12, 2018, 11:05

    It’s in orbit and working:

    My second pass around 11:15 AM over Paris was really close to the city! Again, my team @Obs_Paris talked to me from the ground station, as well as several radio amateurs! Thanks everyone!! We are now working on the decoding of te signals.


  • ljk January 12, 2018, 11:39

    PicSat and 30 other satellites are now in Earth orbit!

    India returns PSLV to service with launch of Cartosat-2F

    by Curt Godwin

    January 12, 2018


    Nearly four and a half months after their last launch ended in failure, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully delivered the Cartosat-2F Earth-observation satellite to on Flight PSLV-C40.

    The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), outfitted in its most powerful XL configuration — lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at 10:58 p.m. EST on January 11, 2018 (03:59 GMT on January 12), carrying the 1,570-pound (712 kilogram) primary satellite, along with 30 smaller secondary payloads, to a 314-mile (505-kilometer) high, Sun-synchronous orbit.

  • Wojciech J January 13, 2018, 19:45

    Seems like the proposed mission started in November 2017 and they are hoping to follow up with numerous other satellites
    ”This mission may serve as a pathfinder for a fleet of low-cost space telescopes observing multiple targets at once to refine long-term mission goals by identifying new objects for other telescopes to observe. The miniaturization of a photometric detection system into a CubeSat could enable a constellation of multiple orbiting observatories for a continuous study of the brightest Sun-like stars which is not possible by conventional space observatories given their cost.[5] Having one or more CubeSats pointed at a target star for extended duration could reveal long-transiting exoplanets.[5] This mission will also provide additional information in the design of future space telescopes.[2]”

    I am pretty sure I remember that Sara Seager had an idea about sending numerous small observation nano-satellites like this one to study one star at a time.


    • ljk January 15, 2018, 10:14

      We should also have a fleet of smallsats ready to go when a new and interesting/unusual astronomical phenomenon is discovered. I am thinking in particular when the next interstellar object comes flying through our star system, which, according to astronomers, should be happening anywhere between once and ten times each year.

  • ljk January 16, 2018, 11:19

    PSLV-C40: A multipurpose mission

    Last week India launched its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) for the first time since a failure in August. Ajey Lele explains that this mission did more than demonstrate that the problem that caused the failure had been corrected.


  • Ben Roberts January 17, 2018, 0:46

    Another informative article, providing us all with some great mental imagery.

  • Marshall Eubanks January 17, 2018, 11:03

    This leaves out another excellent reason to monitor this star – there is good reason to believe that ejecta from beta Pictoris forms one of the major micrometeoroid dust streams observed in the solar system (see the link below). If that is true, then dust from beta Pictoris could be sampled directly in a future space mission, simply by pointing a suitable sample collector (such as a Stardust aerogel type collector) at it for a sufficiently long time.


  • ljk March 26, 2018, 14:00


    PicSat suddenly silent

    mroos, 2018-03-21 12:41:32

    Yesterday 20 March PicSat has suddenly fallen silent, stopping to emit telemetry data.

    The mission has been going really well, in spite of a problem with the Attitude Determination and Control System, the solution of which is well under way. 80 radio amateurs from around the globe have been contributing to the mission by receiving and sending the decoded telemetry to the PicSat Data Base. This has proven extremely useful for the team!

    The cause of the sudden silence is not known at this point. The last beacon was received from Brazil by Roland Zurmely, PY4ZBZ, yesterday at 13:17:37UTC. If nothing happens in the 72 hours following the last communication, yesterday at 11:20 UTC, then the Watch Dog should be kick starting the satellite and get everything back operational again. Everybody waits and hopes to see this coming Friday 23rd March. In the mean time, the team tries to find out more about what could have caused the sudden stop of communication.

    Posted by Remi N5CNB – 2018-03-21 13:59:21 UTC:
    Picsat was silent at 16:04 UTC during the pass over Texas on march20th. Rémi N5CNB

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