Two CubeSats to shine a light on space weather ailments

The ionosphere is constantly glowing and will be the main focus of study for these two satellites. An aurora is captured here, as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Two CubeSats, or small satellites, seek to provide information on space weather disturbances and the subsequent impact on communication signals. The dynamic duo, Plasma Enhancements on the Ionosphere-Thermosphere Satellite (petitSat) and Scintillation Prediction Observations Research Mission (SPORT), arrived at the International Space Station on November 27, 2022, as part of SpaceX’s 26th commercial resupply mission for NASA. Both CubeSats were deployed from the space station on December 29, 2022, at 08:55 EST.

Scientists on both missions are most interested in studying a layer in Earth’s upper atmosphere known as the ionosphere. The ionosphere is where the effects of space weather on our technology are felt most strongly. It is home to many satellites, including the International Space Station. Radio waves and GPS signals travel through the ionosphere, and variations there can affect or even disrupt our communication signals. Space weather can also generate electrical currents that can cause an electrical charge to orbiting satellites and in extreme cases cause blackouts on the ground.

Every day, the ionosphere is transformed by the Sun’s radiation into a soup of positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons, called plasma. Fluctuations in the ionosphere cause low-density and high-density regions (bubbles and drops) to form in the plasma. These bubbles and drops can scatter radio signals and sometimes cause them to bump into each other in a phenomenon called scintillation. The result is noisy radio signals that can reduce the reliability of communication and navigation systems or even completely corrupt the signals.

“If you put a pencil in a half-full glass of water, the pencil looks like it will break,” said Linda Habash Krause, SPORT project scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “What happens when you have bubbles? Similar to pen in water, signals travel through large folds.”

Unfortunately, scientists do not fully understand how plasma bubbles and droplets arise. After launching from the petitSat and SPORT space station, the two CubeSats will use complementary scientific instruments to investigate the conditions that led to these devastating features.

“The idea is for science teams to work together and cross-match,” said Jeff Klenzing, principal investigator of petitSat at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Two CubeSats to shine a light on space weather ailments

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon spacecraft aboard soars into the sky from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 2:20 pm on November 26, 2022, for the 26th commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. SPORT and petitSat were on the spaceship. Credit: NASA

SPORT is equipped with six instruments to measure across the ionosphere. It will help determine the conditions that existed just before the plasma bubbles formed, and ultimately how their evolution affected ground-based communication signals. SPORT will forward the data back to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), where it will be distributed to researchers at INPE, NASA and other US partners.

Complementarily, petitSat will work to determine what triggers the plasma drops, when they appear, and even how large an area they occupy.

Both petitSat and SPORT will provide advanced observations and insights into space weather events affecting communications. Collectively, these missions will improve our understanding of our ever-changing space environment and strengthen the existing capabilities of small satellites to directly benefit our society.

The more we learn about space weather and how to predict it, the better we can protect our astronauts, spacecraft and technology.

Provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Quotation: Two CubeSats (2022, December 30) to shed light on space weather disturbances, retrieved December 30, 2022 from

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