Leuven’s new supersized dish picks up signals from tiny satellite


The University of Leuven opened its new satellite ground station last Friday by capturing signals from a satellite the size of a shoebox

Following the PicSat

The University of Leuven’s Institute of Astronomy officially opened its new satellite ground station on Friday with a special event: capturing signals from France’s PicSat as it flew overhead.

PicSat is a CubeSat, small satellites that are difficult to pick up without a very large satellite dish. Now Leuven has one (pictured). “Our dish is supersized, two metres in diameter, to be able to capture the faint signals of tiny satellites,” says Bram Vandoren of the Institute of Astronomy.

These tiny satellites are called CubeSats – “the size of a shoe box” – and the PicSat is the world’s first CubeSat specifically designed for astronomical observations. It was developed by the Lesia Observatory in Paris (and funded in part by the Brussels-based European Research Council) to follow the transit of an exoplanet, which is a planet from another solar system that orbits a star.

The exoplanet is in the Beta-Pictoris star system, and the PicSat’s job is to monitor the brightness of the star, which can only happen from space, not from the ground. Observing the transit of a planet in front of its young star can provide new information into the process of planet and star formation. 

Data to mission control

“PicSat relies on the amateur radio community for the reception of data, which has so far done an amazing job,” says Vandoren. “There are more than 50 radio amateurs around the world capturing data from PicSat.”

Thanks to the new ground station, Leuven could join them with more sophisticated equipment. “Our antennas can point precisely to the satellite. The satellites we want to receive data from are not in a fixed position in the sky and are only visible for approximately 10 minutes a few times a day. Our antennas move continuously to track the position of the satellite and get the best possible reception.”

The PicSat is in the commission phase, so it’s important for them to have as much data as possible

- Bram Vandoren

So when the PicSat flew over Belgium on Friday morning, Leuven captured its data. “We were able to decode the telemetry of the satellite and send it via the internet to the PicSat mission control centre,” explains Vandoren. “The PicSat is in the commission phase, so it’s important for them to have as much data as possible. The more data they have, the faster they can move to the science part of their mission.”

And not only that, he says, “the reception of the PicSat signals was a good way to test our new ground station”.

University of Leuven

Established almost six centuries ago, the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) is one of the oldest universities in the Low Countries. International rankings consistently place it among the best universities in Europe.
Papal founding - It was founded as a Catholic university by Pope Martin V in 1425.
Bright minds - Over the centuries, it attracted famous scholars like Justus Lipsius, Andreas Vesalius, Desiderius Erasmus and Gerard Mercator.
Micro and nano - KU Leuven is home to the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (imec), a world-class research centre in micro- and nanoelectronics.
11 544

staff members in 2013

40 069

students in 2014-2015 academic year


million euros in annual research budget