UNCW Receives $2.4 Million for Continuation of One-of-a-Kind Nanosatellite

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Thanks to a $2.4 million grant (SOCON: Sustained Ocean Color Observations with Nanosatellites) from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to the UNCW Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography, a UNCW professor is months away from launching a nanosatellite equipped to offer global scientists a colorful new view of the ocean.

UNCW Center for Marine Science Professor John M. Morrison named the ocean color nanosatellite, or CubeSat, SeaHawk. Once launched, the small but powerful device will expand UNCW’s marine research capabilities, providing a unique vantage point for observing the changing biology in the ocean’s surface, alerting researchers to everything from the onset and expansion of harmful algal blooms to potential fishing zones.

“No other university has a satellite like this,” Morrison said with a smile. “Sure, there are a lot of universities launching CubeSats, but none are generating a dataset that will be made available to the international community. Landsat ocean color images traditionally cost about $1,000 each, and UNCW’s will be free to everybody. It’s pretty remarkable!”

Alongside his self-selected “dream team” of international scientists, with representatives from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Cloudland Instruments and Clyde Space, Morrison has spent the last two years painstakingly developing SeaHawk and its valuable cargo: a groundbreaking ocean color sensor, dubbed HawkEye. Their work thus far, made possible through a previous $1.8 million Moore Foundation grant, has been a labor of love that’s finally about to pay off.

A quasi-synoptic picture of what’s happening in the ocean from outer space, ocean color assists the study of everything from the degradation of coral reefs to the effects of El Niño. The data SeaHawk will collect is significant; UNCW is one of only three entities in the state that has been granted a Space Act Agreement. As part of the agreement, Morrison and his team will work closely with NASA to collect and process SeaHawk’s data. The data will then be entered into NASA’s Ocean Biology Distributed Active Archive, allowing UNCW to make it accessible to the international community at no cost.

Free access to SeaHawk’s data could have a large impact addressing critical societal needs, especially in the highly variable coastal regions of the world. Global scientists could potentially improve local water quality, maintain biodiversity and prevent overexploitation of resources.

“The goal of this project is to enhance scientists’ ability to observe ocean color while increasing worldwide accessibility to the data,” said Morrison. “We also wanted to see if it could be done through the use of a low-cost, next generation, miniature ocean color sensor flown aboard a CubeSat. Because this is so novel – a completely new opportunity – we just don’t know where it will go. It’s really a one-of-a-kind deal.”

The launch of the first SeaHawk satellite is scheduled for the first quarter of 2018, with a second to follow the first quarter of 2019.

-- Christina Schechtman