For Scientists

Mission Concept and Vision

The SkyHopper mission is currently the first cubesat concept for an infrared space telescope, with a tentative launch date at the end of 2020. Thanks to its near-infrared sensitivity, ultra-stable image quality in four simultaneously exposed filter bands, and rapid spacecraft slewing, SkyHopper will be the world-leading facility to identify Gamma Ray Burst (GRB) afterglows originating from the edge of the observable Universe, and to discover/characterize potentially habitable Earth-size exoplanets transiting in front of nearby cool stars.


Key Science Goals

  • Search for other Earths

    The current focus of exoplanetary science is the discovery and characterisation of potentially habitable Earth-size planets around cool stars. Space observations are crucially needed to achieve sufficient photometric stability. With its near-IR camera, SkyHopper will be highly complementary to NASA’s upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will identify the nearest, short-period planets from all-sky data at optical wavelengths. SkyHopper will be highly efficient for follow-up of TESS targets to measure masses through transit timing variations and to identify longer-period planets at larger distances, in the habitable zone where water can exist in a liquid state. Based on simulations, SkyHopper is expected to double the TESS yield for habitable-zone Earth-sized exoplanets. In addition, it will also be highly competitive for carrying out a new transiting survey around brown dwarfs (similar to the recently discovered multi-planetary system TRAPPIST-1). Overall, SkyHopper will become the premier facility for exoplanet IR transits and a very effective and productive successor to NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope for exoplanet science.

  • Identify Gamma Ray Bursts in the first billion years after the Big Bang

    SkyHopper will follow-up GRB triggers with near-IR photometry, identifying candidate bursts at redshift z > 5, with an expected discovery rate of 5 ± 2 yr-1. The efficiency gain of prompt near-IR imaging from space is so significant that within two years of operations following up events discovered by the SWIFT satellite, SkyHopper is expected to double the sample size of known GRBs at redshift z > 5 as collected by the whole community over more than 20 years. This would enable new exciting opportunities to leverage SkyHopper’s discoveries to investigate the formation of massive stars and of their host galaxies during the epoch of reionization, a time when the gas in the Universe underwent a complex phase transition and the first heavy chemical elements begin being produced.

  • Explore the time-variable Universe

    The search for IR counterparts of transients identified across a range of electromagnetic wavelengths and other messengers like gravitational waves, neutrinos, and cosmic rays is an increasingly important field in astrophysics. SkyHopper’s IR coverage and rapid spacecraft slewing are ideally suited to investigate short-lived transients occurring in highly obscured environments such as star-forming regions.

The Spacecraft

The spacecraft concept is based on a 12U format (∼ 36 × 22 × 24 cm3), which will house a 20 × 10 cm2 rectangular telescope mirror, feeding light to a 2048×2048 IR image sensor (H2RG) actively cooled to 145 K. SkyHopper’s camera design is based on a novel concept using a 3-mirror anastigmat feeding a dichroic Kester-type prism, which splits the light spectrally into 4 adjacent, ∼ 0.2 μm wide and simultaneously exposed filter bands, each covering the same field of view on the sky. The spacecraft attitude will be controlled by three miniature star trackers and four reaction wheels, capable of slewing to new targets at 3 deg s−1 and of maintaining a pointing accuracy better than 4” (68% confidence), comparable to the telescope’s angular resolution. A sat-phone duplex modem will provide 24/7 uplink and downlink for low-bandwidth but time- critical communications, complementing a high-throughput (3 Mbit s−1) radio antenna for large data transfer. These features will give SkyHopper an ultra-rapid response to transient events, 1000 times faster than the Hubble Space Telescope. The combination of timeliness on target and low background/stable image quality from space at infrared wavelengths make SkyHopper a unique facility that augments the capabilities of ground and space-based telescopes that are 100 to 1000× more expensive (Hubble, James Webb, 30-meter class observatories).

Key Mission Specifications

  • 12U cubesat in Sun-synchronous polar orbit (∼ 600 km) with ≥ 48 months orbital lifetime.
  • Highly stabilized spacecraft (<4′′ RMS pointing stability).
  • 24/7 Sat-phone uplink & rapid slew (3 deg/s) for prompt repointing to new coordinates (< 120 s from trigger if target is visible).
  • Telescope: 3-mirror anastigmat (200 cm2 aperture); > 0.25 × 0.25 deg2 field of view; diffraction limited; efficient baffling (SWIFT-like Sun, Earth, Moon avoidance angles).
  • Actively cooled near-IR detector; dichroic prism for 4-band simultaneous imaging (0.8-1.7 μm).
  • Point source sensitivity: mAB = 19.5 [t = 600 s; 5σ; H band].

Mission Timeline

2016   Mission formulation; preliminary concept design;
2017   Funding proposals; preliminary design; engineering model for dichroic imager;
2018   Final design; construction;
2019   Construction (continued);
2020   System assembly; integration; testing; launch;
2021+ Commissioning; operations [nominal 2yr; extended 4yr]; start constellation program.

The Consortium: Leadership Highlights

Dr. Michele Trenti* (Melbourne): Principal Investigator
Prof. Stan Skafidas (Melbourne): Engineering working group lead
A/Prof. Michael Ireland (ANU): Telescope working group co-lead; Exoplanet science co-lead
Prof. Michael Skrutskie* (UVa): Telescope & detector design; Exoplanet science
Dr. Jochen Greiner (MPE): Telescope working group co-lead; GRB science lead
Dr. Nikku Madhusudhan (Cambridge): Exoplanet science co-lead
Dr. Katherine J. Mack* (Melbourne): Media and Outreach lead; Transient science
Mr. Robert Mearns* (Melbourne): Systems Engineer
* Founding Member

Co-Investigators: Dr. Christopher Burke (NASA Ames); Dr. Brad Cenko (NASA Goddard); Prof. Jonathan Cirtain (UVa); A/Prof. Jeff Cooke (Swinburne); Dr. Andrew Hopkins (Australian Astronomical Observatory); Dr. Sylvio Klose (TLS Tautenburg); Dr. Peter McCullough (STScI); Prof. Anna Moore (ANU); Dr. Ian Parry (Cambridge); Prof. Rosalba Perna (Stonybrook); Prof. J. Michael Shull (CU Boulder); Prof. Nial Tanvir (Leicester); A/Prof. Randall Wayth (Curtin); Prof. J. Stuart Wyithe (Melbourne).


Australian Astronomical Observatory ∙ Australian National University ∙ Cambridge University ∙ Curtin University ∙ NASA Goddard ∙ Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics ∙ Space Telescope Science Institute ∙ Swinburne Institute of Technology ∙ Thüringer Landessternwarte Tautenburg ∙ University of Virginia