Nasa to launch loaf-sized satellites to study Earth’s climate
Image credit: MIT Lincoln Library
Nasa has announced a series of small-satellite missions designed to study the Earth’s climate using low-cost technology, which can be launched cheaply as a piggy-back on other missions.
The first of the series, a cubesat called Ravan designed to study Earth’s energy balance, will be launched by the end of November.
“Nasa is increasingly using small satellites to tackle important science problems across our mission portfolio,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “They also give us the opportunity to test new technological innovations in space and broaden the involvement of students and researchers to get hands-on experience with space systems.”
These small satellites range in size from a loaf of bread to a small washing machine and weigh from a few to 180kg. The satellites are easy to build and enable rapid development and testing of technologies.
The upcoming missions will include the CYGNSS constellation consisting of eight microsatellites designed to collect data about hurricanes, the IceCube, which will measure cloud ice, HARP for monitoring airborne particles and the distribution of cloud droplet sizes, MiRaTA, which at the size of a shoebox combines many capabilities of much larger weather satellites, and the TROPICS constellation of 12 cubesats for studying the insides of hurricanes.
“The affordability and rapid build times of these CubeSat projects allow for more risk to be taken, and the more risk we take now the more capable and reliable the instruments will be in the future,” said Pamela Millar, flight validation lead at Nasa’s Earth Science Technology Office, which funds four of the upcoming missions.
“These small satellites are changing the way we think about making instruments and measurements. The cube has inspired us to think more outside the box.”
The satellites were developed in cooperation with leading US technology universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan
Five of the six missions are expected to reach orbit within the next few months.