UNCW Professor John Morrison and team launches the Operations phase of the SeaHawk-1 Cubesat satellite

Big Things Come in Very Small Packages: A New Way of Looking at the Ocean 

Artist Rendition of Seahawk-1 in Orbit Over Scotland

Wilmington, N.C. – The University of North Carolina Wilmington would like to announce that the UNCW SeaHawk-1 Cubesat, outfitted with the HawkEye Ocean Color Imager, has completed on-orbit Commissioning and has entered into a period of phased startup of Operations on June 21, 2021.  

After years of research and development, UNCW’s first nanosatellite is now in orbit collecting unprecedented high-resolution images that have the potential to transform how scientists study the health of the world’s oceans. 

UNCW Professor of Physics and Physical Oceanography John Morrison and his team of international partners launched the Operations phase of the SeaHawk-1 Cubesat satellite this week. This low-cost, lightweight, miniature satellite can travel 7,000 miles in an hour, circle the globe in 15 days, and gather laser-sharp images of the ocean from more than 350 miles away.  

SeaHawk-1 can produce 100 images per week, giving scientists a bird’s-eye view of environments like coastal zones, estuaries, coral reefs and fjords.  

Ocean color satellite oceanography provides a unique window into the global ocean ecosystem. UNCW’s SeaHawk-1 Cubesat satellite has pushed the boundaries of what was previously thought to be possible with such a tiny spacecraft (10cm x 10cm x 30 cm – about the size of a loaf of bread) weighing less than 5kg (11 pounds). The SOCON project provides a new tool for high-quality science missions through its use of a low-cost miniature ocean color sensor called HawkEye. With 120-meter spatial resolution, nearly 100 times more information per pixel of its predecessors can be collected, HawkEye data will enhance our understanding of ocean biology and complement the larger, polar orbiting satellites currently in space.   

Similar to the superior vision of a hawk, the HawkEye’s high-spatial resolution imagery improves scientists’ ability to monitor fjords, estuaries, coral reefs and other near-shore environments where anthropogenic stresses are often most acute and where there are considerable security and commercial interests. Now that SOCON has entered the Operations phase, free access will be provided to all data collected by HawkEye to the International Ocean Color Community. The satellite is expected to produce around 100 images per week. (Please see definitions below for Commissioning, Operations and International Ocean Color Community.)   

Funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, UNCW’s SOCON Project (https://uncw.edu/socon) demonstrates the capability to construct low-cost, autonomous nanosatellites (cubesats) to provide sustained, high spatial resolution information about ocean surface processes. SeaHawk-1 was launched on Dec. 3, 2018. Lessons learned in this activity can be found on the program’s website. 

All HawkEye imagery will be made available free of charge via the NASA Ocean Biology Distributed Active Archive Center (OB.DAAC) on NASA’s Ocean Color Web at https://oceancolor.gsfc.nasa.gov. In addition, NASA’s free comprehensive software package for the processing, display and analysis of ocean color data, known as SeaDAS (https://seadas.gsfc.nasa.gov), has also been updated to include the support for HawkEye.   

UNCW’s SOCON Project is a unique public, private and federal partnership between the following entities: University of North Carolina Wilmington, (public: owner/operator); University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, (public: co-lead of the mission’s science program and liaison with the International Ocean Color community to manage scientific requests for images); Cloudland Instruments (private/commercial: design and construction of HawkEye ocean color sensor); AAC Clyde Space (private/commercial: design and construction of SeaHawk satellite bus); Spaceflight Inc. (private/commercial: launch service provider); and NASA/Goddard’s Ocean Color Group (federal: Under a Space Act Agreement between UNCW and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, a partnership was created to ensure the collection, archive, distribution and calibration of HawkEye data to maximize its use by the science community.). 

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