Tech Insights

Raspberry Pi’s Rise Into Space

July 14, 2023 by Kevin Clemens

The revolutionary microcomputer has become a favorite for CubeSats and monitoring sensors.

A small, single-board computer, the Raspberry Pi, has revolutionized how people learn about and use computers. Created in 2006 by a British computer scientist, Eben Upton, it was designed to teach basic computer science in schools. 

 

Raspberry Pi Zero W

Raspberry Pi Zero W. Image used courtesy of Raspberry Pi 
 

The first Raspberry Pi appeared in 2012. It cost just $35 and had several features making it ideal for education and experimentation. The Raspberry Pi had a full-size HDMI port, two USB ports, an Ethernet port, a built-in Broadcom processor, and 512 MB of RAM.

The Raspberry Pi has majorly impacted how people learn about and use computers. It has made computing more accessible and affordable, inspiring a new generation of computer scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Even more recently, it has found its way into outer space. 

 

CubeSats

Space flight has traditionally been the expensive purview of space agencies like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and just getting hardware into low Earth orbit made space a non-starter for universities and entrepreneurs. That has changed as NASA and several small commercial rocket launch companies have developed much less expensive ways to get small satellites into space. 

One way that companies and universities have been able to enter the space age is through CubeSats. These are a class of research spacecraft, sometimes called nanosatellites, built to standard dimensions with a width, length, and height of 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) and weighing less than 1.33 kilograms (about 3 pounds).

NASA's CubeSats are deployed from a Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer or P-POD. The tiny satellites fly as auxiliary payloads on rockets, typically carrying larger satellites and payloads. University researchers typically use CubeSats and, according to NASA, should be designed to address aspects of science, exploration, technology development, and education.

 

Pi in the Sky

Because of the small size, lightweight, and low-cost goals of CubeSats, the Raspberry Pi microcomputer has been a popular part of many nanosatellite projects.  The Raspberry Pi has been used to develop flight software for CubeSats, which are small satellites typically used for research. 

An example is the GASPACS (Get Away Special Passive Attitude Control Satellite) CubeSat, sponsored by NASA and built by students from Utah State University (USU). It was deployed from the International Space Station (ISS) into its own orbit in January 2022. It is believed to be the first satellite to use a Raspberry Pi microcomputer as its flight computer.

 

The GASPAC CubeSat

The GASPAC CubeSat. Image used courtesy of Raspberry Pi

 

GASPACS’ mission is to test the deployment of an experimental inflatable boom designed to help the satellite stabilize itself. The inflatable boom was successfully deployed about 45 minutes into the mission, with photographic evidence provided by the Raspberry Pi Camera. 

 

Astro Pi

In 2015, as part of a British project, two space-hardened Raspberry Pi computers (Astro Pis) were installed on the International Space Station (ISS). 

The European Astro Pi Challenge was created to allow student groups to conduct scientific investigations in space. The winning computer programs developed in a student competition were sent to run on the Astro Pi computers aboard the space station. More than 28,000 students from 26 countries participated in the 2021-2022 program to enhance science and technology skills among young people. 

 

The Many Uses of Raspberry Pi in Space

NASA continues to find new ways to use Raspberry Pis—often to develop tools for monitoring the health of satellites and the ISS. These microcomputers can also collect data from spacecraft sensors, run operation simulations, develop ground control system software, and train astronauts on spaceflight procedures.

The Raspberry Pi is a versatile and affordable computer well-suited for space. Its small size, low power consumption, and open-source design make it ideal for myriad applications. As NASA and universities continue to find cost-effective ways to explore space, the Raspberry Pi will likely play an increasingly important role.