A new miniature fine Sun sensor has been developed that uses a quadrant photodiode and housing to determine the Sun vector. Its size, mass, and power make it especially suited to small satellite applications, especially nanosatellites. Its accuracy is on the order of one arcminute, and it will enable new science in the area of nanosatellites.

The motivation for this innovation was the need for high-performance Sun sensors in the nanosatellite category. The design idea comes out of the LISS (Lockheed Intermediate Sun Sensor) used by the sounding rocket program on their solar pointing ACS (Attitude Control System). This system uses photodiodes and a wall between them. The shadow cast by the Sun is used to determine the Sun angle. The new sensor takes this concept and miniaturizes it. A cruciform shaped housing and a surface-mount quadrant photodiode package allow for a two-axis fine Sun sensor to be packaged into a space ≈1.25×l×0.25 in. (≈3.2×2.5×0.6 cm). The circuitry to read the photodiodes is a simple transimpedance operational amplifier. This is much less complex than current small Sun sensors for nanosatellites that rely on photoarrays and processing of images to determine the Sun center. The simplicity of the circuit allows for a low power draw as well.

The sensor consists of housing with a cruciform machined in it. The cruciform walls are 0.5-mm thick and the center of the cruciform is situated over the center of the quadrant photodiode sensor. This allows for shadows to be cast on each of the four photodiodes based on the angle of the Sun. A simple operational amplifier circuit is used to read the output of the photodiodes as a voltage. The voltage output of each photodiode is summed based on rows and columns, and then the values of both rows or both columns are differenced and divided by the sum of the voltages for all four photodiodes. The value of both difference over sums for the rows and columns is compared to a table or a polynomial fit (depending on processor power and accuracy requirements) to determine the angle of the Sun in the sensor frame.

This work was done by Scott Heatwole, Carl Snow, and Luis Santos of Goddard Space Flight Center. GSC-16551-1