NASA’s Army of Mini Satellites Will Observe How The Earth is Changing

Nov 09, 2016 03:28 AM EST

NASA is launching a suite of six next-generation to study the Earth as it changes. The Earth-observing satellites will demonstrate innovative new methods for studying the planet.

The mini satellites range in size from as small as a loaf of bread to as big as a small washing machine, weighing about a few to 400 pounds. Their small sizes help scientists reduce development and launch costs as the satellites often hitch a ride to space as a "secondary payload" on another mission's rocket - providing a cost-effective avenue for testing new technologies and conducting science, NASA said.

"NASA is increasingly using small satellites to tackle important science problems across our mission portfolio," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement. "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."

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Five of these mini satellites will launch during the next several months and will introduce new methods to measure hurricanes, Earth's energy budget, aerosols and weather.

RAVAN (Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes), which is expected to launch this month, is a CubeSat designed to detect slight changes in Earth's energy budget at the top of the atmosphere - essential measurements for understanding the effects of greenhouse gas on climate.

In spring 2017, two CubeSats will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) to make detailed observations of the clouds: IceCube, a high-frequency microwave radiometer to measure cloud ice, and HARP (Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter), which will measure airborne particles and the distribution of cloud droplet sizes.

MiRaTA (Microwave Radiometer Technology Acceleration) is also scheduled to launch in early 2017 with NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System-1. The shoebox-sized satellite will collect data on temperature, water vapor and cloud ice that can be used in weather forecasting and storm tracking.

NASA will also launch two other satellites to perform robust science missions: CYGNSS (Cyclone, Global Navigation Satellite System), which is composed of eight identical satellites that will fly in formation to measure wind intensity over the ocean and provide new insights about tropical cyclones, launching this December; and TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats), which will study the insides of hurricanes with a constellation of 12 CubeSats.

"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," Pamela Millar, flight validation lead at NASA's Earth Science Technology Office (ESTO), said in the same statement. "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."

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