Star trackers for satellites can play a vital role in attitude determination.
For thousands of years explorers used the stars to navigate across the globe. Around 6,000 stars are visible to the naked eye under the best possible conditions (the sort you might get hundreds of miles out at sea for example) and mariners have typically used one or more of 58 navigational stars to chart a course on the open ocean.
Today’s explorers are pioneering new technologies and ideas in a completely different environment. Instead of mighty wooden ships they’re seeking new horizons with small satellites that can be just centimetres in length.
The technologies that combine in the build, launch and operation of these smallsats are some of the most advanced that humanity has ever created. But incredibly, these highly technical systems can still use the same approach that sailors have employed for centuries as part of their navigation – through the use of simple components called star trackers.
In this post we take a look at this fascinating piece of space equipment, look at how star trackers for satellites work, discuss what to think about when selecting a star tracker for your satellite, and give an overview of some of the products available on the global marketplace for space.
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Please note that this article is for information only and is not purporting to be an assessment of any of the products listed. If you need more information at any time, please don’t hesitate to contact us. In addition, while we try to be as comprehensive as possible new star trackers are coming to the market regularly and we will keep this article updated with new models and suppliers over time – so please check back often or consider bookmarking this page.
How star trackers for satellites work
In essence a star tracker is a simple navigational tool that can determine the orientation of its host satellite relative to certain stars.
It scans the starscape to pick out known stars and constellations contained in its catalogue and uses these to determine the satellite’s attitude to enable star tracker navigation.
The stars are located using cameras or photocells and onboard processing systems identify the images and process the measured position in the reference frame of the spacecraft.
Around 50-60 main navigational stars are primarily used to determine the satellite’s position, although for larger and more complex missions and spacecraft entire star field databases can be referenced in order to determine orientation.
What makes a good star tracker?
In order to work effectively a star tracker needs to be able to record accurate measurements of star positions during the satellite’s orbit. It needs to account for interference effects of light reflecting from the satellite’s surfaces or exhaust plumes during propulsion sequences.
The sensitive sensing components also need to be adequately protected from high radiation levels to continue working effectively and should also consume as little as power as possible.
As with most smallsat equipment, mass is obviously a factor. In addition, with many satellites incorporating a wider range of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) and bespoke sub-systems, interoperability and assembly options are also important when selecting star trackers for satellites.
Star trackers for satellites available on the global marketplace
In this section, you can find a range of star trackers for satellites available on the global market. These listings will be updated when new products are added to the global marketplace for space at satsearch.co – so please check back for more or sign up for our mailing list for all the updates.
We have also put together an overview of sun sensors if you require additional sensing equipment.
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The ST200 and ST400 co-developed by AAC Clyde Space and Berlin Space Technologies
AAC Clyde Space and Berlin Space Technologies offer two star trackers for satellites, designed for varying mission demands and star tracker satellite sizes:
The ST200 – one of the world’s smallest and lightest fully autonomous, low power star trackers, aimed at applications in pico- and nano-satellite platforms. With a star tracker accuracy of 30 arcseconds and an extremely small physical footprint, the ST200 can be used in practically every platform that requires attitude determination.
The ST400 – with doubled attitude determination accuracy and improved radiation tolerance compared to the ST200, the ST400 is suitable for use in microsatellites and in more demanding missions. The ST400 is prepared to accept very narrow sun-exclusion angle baffles, which AAC Clyde Space can supply on demand. The dedicated RS422/RS485 interface allows networking of multiple ST400s which, combined with narrow sun-exclusion angle baffles, enables star trackin configurations to be found for even highly complex satellite and orbit geometries, there will always be a configuration that works.
The ST400 has been qualified for man-rated missions since October 2013 and has flight heritage since Q4 2015.
The SpectraTRAC Star Tracker and Star Tracker by Redwire Space
Intended for spaceflight, CubeSat, and NanoSat missions, the 475g unit is self-contained and features Lost in Space star identification.
When power is applied the system receives quarternions accurate to 10 arcsec at 4 Hz rate, and exhibiting a maximum tracking rate >2° degrees per second.
The star tracker has an average power consumption of 2.5 W and features a processing unit that includes an advanced star-tracking algorithm that records the host spacecraft’s position during orbit, for optimum real-time attitude determination.
A 475g star tracker intended for orbits that have a typical design life of 5 years, and suitable for CubeSat and NanoSat missions due to the size, weight and power (SWaP).
The unit is completely self-contained and features Lost in Space star identification. When power is applied, the spacecraft begins receiving quarternions accurate to 10 arcsec at 4 Hz rate, and a maximum tracking rate >2° degrees per second.
The TRL 9 system uses a star catalog containing 1889 stars (6 VM) that can achieve greater than 99% sky coverage. It has a volume of 55 x 65 x 70 mm3 and an update rate of 4 Hz.
The CubeStar by CubeSpace
Designed as a medium-accuracy, low-power, and small-form factor small satellite and CubeSat star tracker. The low power is achieved by reducing the update rate to 1 Hz, using a wide field-of-view (FOV) lens, and designing power-efficient electronics. CubeStar outputs inertially-referenced attitude quaternions or matched vector pairs for use in an external ADCS application.
Star tracker by KAIROSPACE
Designed to offer a compact, fully autonomous star tracker suitable for CubeSat and nanosat missions. The system has an internal accelerometer, a pointing accuracy of < 5 arcsec @ 3σ, and the ability to take images on-the-fly.
It has a mass of 197 g (including baffle), a volume of 56 x 60 x 93 mm3, and a power consumption level of < 0.5 W in main mode and < 1.35 W in calibration mode. The star tracker has held flight heritage since 2019.
The star tracker portfolio of Sodern S.A.
Sodern S. A. is a subsidiary of ArianeGroup with over 50 years’ experience in optronics and neutron technology. Sodern specialises in star tracker manufacture and has contributed to several cutting-edge projects including ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) mission, NASA’s InSight and Europa Clipper missions, France’s MegaJoule Laser and the CNES’ PHARAO atomic clocks. Sodern manufactures an array of star trackers for satellites to meet various mission requirements:
AURIGA-SA – a low-cost, plug-and-play star tracker for small satellites. Delivering at least 7 years’ guaranteed operation in low earth orbit and capable of supporting up to 2 optical heads connected to their own electronic unit. Thanks to algorithms inherited from HYDRA, the AURIGA-SA also offers excellent robustness, particularly at End-Of-Life and for high detector temperature conditions in both acquisition and tracking modes.
Auriga-CP – an innovative, low-cost, low-weight star tracker for small satellites. AURIGA-CP offers fast acquisition and arcsec tracking for 7+ years of guaranteed lifetime in LEO. Thanks to algorithms inherited from HYDRA, the AURIGA-CP also offers excellent robustness, particularly at End-Of-Life and for high detector temperature conditions in both acquisition and tracking modes.
HYDRA – a multiple head star tracker with separate optical heads and electronic units. HYDRA is versatile, robust, accurate and flight proven. HYDRA incorporates extensive autonomy, offering significant potential for AOCS simplification.
HYDRA-CP – a star tracker that is directly linked to the spacecraft’s processor. HYDRA-CP has a guaranteed lifetime of 18 years in GEO. HYDRA-CP autonomously manages any situation and the sensor always delivers accurate attitude data in operating domains with selectable update rates up to 16Hz.
HYDRA-M – a two-head star tracker with separate optical heads and electronic units, suitable for microsats, at moderate cost. HYDRA-M is intended for use on a temperature regulated base plate. Hydra-M is a small deviation from Sodern’s flight proven HYDRA Baseline Active Pixel Sensor (CMOS) star tracker.
SED26 – an autonomous CCD Star Tracker that operates in worst case Space environments, including maximum solar flares and 18 year cumulated dose in GEO. First flown in April 2005 to support the attitude control of a 15 year GEO spacecraft, the compact and low-weight SED26 provides all the features of a modern autonomous star tracker.
The KH Leuven and KU Leuven Mini Star Tracker by CubeSat Pointing
The CubeSat Pointing KH Leuven star trackers offer arc second range pointing accuracy for CubeSats.
The KH Leuven model has a built-in baffle to reduce the effect of stray light and is designed to offer a compact and simple interface for CubeSats and large satellites.
The KU Leuven Mini Star Tracker is an extremely compact model with an easy-to-use interface for CubeSats and larger satellites. Due to its small size, several can be mounted under different angles on the satellite.
The NanoSat Sensor (NST-1) by Chang Guang Satellite
Designed as a high-precision attitude measurer that has been utilised in the satellite, missile, and ship-building industries. The NST-1 sensor has mass of 0.27 kg (including the lens hood and prism), a physical envelope of 55 mm x 60 mm x 132 mm, and has a power consumption of less than 1.2 W.
The Mark-3 Star Sensor by Antrix Corporation Limited
Antrix’s Star Sensor system provides attitude information for spacecraft pointing and control. The Mark-3 Star Sensor consists of optics, detector, embedded processor-based processing electronics, memory, and power circuitry. A baffle is used to eliminate unwanted stay-light entering the optics.
The Star Tracker VST-68M and VST-41M by Vectronic Aerospace GmbH
Vectronic Aerospace is a Berlin-based firm that manufactures mechanic and electronic subsystems for small satellites, with a focus on attitude determination and control, power control and data handling. The portfolio consists of flight proven components such as star trackers, reaction wheels, and magnetorquers, which have shown their reliability in various space missions. Vectronic offers two star tracker models designed for small satellites:
The VST-41M is a high performance 3-axis star tracker for small satellite applications with the technical capabilities and radiation tolerance suitable for LEO, GEO and even for interplanetary missions. The sensor has been successfully used in several small satellite missions showing excellent in-orbit performance.
The VST-68M performs direct and autonomous measurement of the spacecraft attitude in the body fixed star tracker reference frame relative to the celestial reference system J2000.
Nano Star Trackers by Blue Canyon Technologies Inc.
Blue Canyon Technologies’ Nano Star Tracker (NST) range offers reliable, high-performance design compatible with a variety of CubeSat and Nanosat configurations and missions. The Star Trackers include an internal baffle and electronics, user-friendly interfaces and feature over 99% sky coverage and a 10 x 12 degrees field of view.
They are also designed to operate for more than 5 years in low earth orbit (LEO). In addition, the products all feature star tracking down to 7.5 magnitude, an on-board star catalog featuring more than 20,000 stars and lost in-space star identification. Two models are available:
The Standard NST – 0.35 kg (w/ baffle), volume of 10×5.5×5 cm and 45 degrees (half cone) sun keep out.
The Extended NST – 1.3 kg (w/ baffle), volume of 25x10x10 cm and 17.5 degrees (half cone) sun keep out.
The Second Generation Star Tracker (ST-16RT2) and Laser Downlink plus Star Tracker by Sinclair Interplanetary
Sinclair Interplanetary builds high-performance star trackers and baffles for small spacecraft. There are currently 55 on-orbit.
The Second Generation Star Tracker (ST-16RT2) is a low-power (less than 0.5W) system weighing just 29.6 grams and featuring a lifetime of 13 years. The star tracker’s attitude knowledge error is 5 arcsec and it has a slew tolerance of less than 3 deg/s. In addition, the small footprint (62x56x38 mm) enables the ST-16RT2 to be easily integrated into a variety of satellite sizes.
The Laser Downlink plus Star Tracker features internal fine-pointing to ground station based on built-in star tracker and a passive ground receiver with a 0.55m diameter Newtonian telescope with silicon APD. The star tracker performance is; 5 arcsecond cross-boresight (RMS) and 55 arcsecond around boresight (RMS), and the product has a mass of 335g and a small physical volume of 79x68x68mm. The system also features a lifetime of 13 years in LEO (800 km) or 9 years in GEO and a downlink data rate of 1 Gbits/s in 1000 km range at 250 Mbits/s at 2000 km range.
Autonomous Star Sensors by Jena-Optronik GmbH
Jena-Optronik GmbH manufactures autonomous star trackers for a wide range of LEO and GEO applications and has more than 20 years’ experience in star sensor development:
ASTRO APS – The ASTRO APS uses advanced radiation hard CMOS Active Pixel Sensor (APS) detector technology. With a single box design with minimized dimensions, low mass and low power consumption, while maximizing the ease of integration. The ASTRO APS shows high reliability and radiation hardness by careful selection of EEE Parts, reduced number of components and special software algorithms to cope with radiation events. Featuring attitude quaternion accuracy of <1arcsec (1sigma) and a new level of compactness compared to CCD-based star sensors for the GEO telecom market (>18 years life time, <25 years radiation robustness for GEO missions). The improvements in dimensions and performance are realized with the replacement of the CCD detector by the APS detector technology.
The A-STR , AA-STR and SPACESTAR by Leonardo Finmeccanica S.p.A
Leonardo Finmeccanica S.p.A is a Italy-based space business active in a number of sectors including; Earth observation, remote sensing for weather phenomena and ecosystems, communication and navigation, intelligence services, space exploration missions. Leonardo manufactures three star tracker models:
A-STR – a medium Field of View (FOV) star tracker integrated in a single assembly with a radiation hardened design. Featuring robust and accurate three-axis attitude determination with very low mass and power consumption for the class of instrument. The high performance of its CCD detector means that the A-STR can be used in extremely accurate pointing space telescopes and in agile (or spinning) satellites. This is achieved via the A-STR’s dedicated operative modes that can be entered via telecommand. More than 100 A-STR FMs have been sold for GEO, LEO and inter-planetary missions since 2001 and more than 90 years of successful operations in space have been accumulated to the date.
AA-STR – a medium Field of View (FOV) star tracker integrated in a single assembly with a radiation hardened design. The tracker features robust and accurate three axis attitude determination with very low mass and power consumption for the class of instrument. The AA-STR is a high TRL-9 next generation product. The AA-STR, while offering similar performance and improved radiation capabilities with respect to CCD based star trackers, incorporates all the advantages of miniaturization and reduced weight, power and cost.
SPACESTAR – SPACESTAR (Satellite Platform Avionics Computer Embedding Star Tracker Algorithms And Resources) is a novel star tracker architecture, originally developed for a high volume constellation program which, through an integrated configuration to Attitude Control System computers, enables significant size, weight, power and cost benefits. The results of these efficiencies provide the ability to utilize high performance star tracking systems on small satellites that were previously unable to accommodate the size, weight, and power of legacy architectures.
Star Tracker HE-5AS by Terma
The Terma HE-5AS Star Tracker is a fully qualified design, offering a favorable combination of arc-second performance at an affordable price. Robust algorithms provide full autonomy in initial attitude acquisition and attitude update. Terma quality standards, documentation and component screening meet the requirements of discerning customers including the European Space Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense.
The camera is separate to make it easier to accommodate on the satellite, and to minimize heat dissipation (<1.5W) near the sensor. The camera is a compact, weighing less than 1.0 kg. The optics provides a 22º field of view and – although compact – provides enough aperture to track across the entire celestial vault. A cable provides digital data-link (LVDS) and power supply from the processor unit. The Camera can be supplied with a thermo-mechanically stable bracket.
Custom or standard baffles are available providing a Sun exclusion half angle as low as to 30º. The processing unit houses the star catalogue and the software algorithms for initial attitude determination and continuing attitude update. Also, the unit provides power to the camera. The interface towards the spacecraft is redundant RS-422 or MIL-STD-1553, and a power supply voltage from +22 V to +34 V and dissipation is 5.5 W.
The STT by Amanogi
Amanogi provides the Star Tracker (STT) system for micro- and CubeSats. The product that can estimate the attitude in the star coordinate system by matching with the star coordinate catalog. Amanogi’s aim is to deliver at half the market price and development time, ensuring that you’re able to get your systems to the launchpad as quickly as possible.
The ST Series Startracker and PST3 Star Tracker by O.C.E. Technology
O.C.E. Technology’s autonomous star trackers are designed to provide highly accurate attitude determination. More than 100 star trackers are currently in commission on satellites, such as the NS-1/2 and the JILIN-1 group. The majority of these satellites are earth observation (EO) systems providing video and high-resolution remote sensing data. O.C.E. Technology offers two star tracker models:
ST Series Startracker – featuring an integrated mechanical design in a small-size tracker with an electrical design based on ‘system on a chip’ (SOC) technology. The product is radiation-hardened and features a flexible-rigid PCB for reliability and isolation of outside connection from the sensitive board for accuracy. It also boasts a small baffle design with ultra-black material.
PST3 pico star tracker – one of the world’s smallest and lightest fully autonomous, high-accuracy star trackers featuring low power consumption. The products have flight heritage and customised pico star trackers are also available.
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