NASA’s ‘Black Magic’ CubeSat Will Study The Earth From Space

Nov 09, 2016 04:06 AM EST

NASA's tiny "black magic" box will measure rain and snowfall on the Earth from space.

Previous satellites that used to guide communications over the air had the parabolic dish. These satellites were the ones that cast the "black magic" and the bigger the antenna, the better it is at catching or transmitting signals from far away.

But CubeSats are now changing the conventional design of the spacecraft. They are light, cheap and tiny - most are just about the size of a cereal box. And antenna designers have packed their "black magic" into a device without a dish.

"It's like pulling a rabbit out of a hat," Nacer Chahat, a specialist in antenna design at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. "Shrinking the size of the radar is a challenge for NASA. As space engineers, we usually have lots of volume, so building antennas packed into a small volume isn't something we're trained to do."

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Using this new antenna design, Chahat and his team worked with a CubeSat team for the antenna of the new Radar in a CubeSat (RainCube), a technology demonstration that will use radar to measure rain and snowfall. RainCube, which is scheduled to launch in 2018, has a distinctive antenna that resembles an umbrella stuffed into a jack-in-a-box. When open, the ribs extend out of a canister and spread out a golden mesh.

CubeSats are measured in increments of 1U (CubeSat unit), where 1U is roughly equivalent to a 4-inch cubic box or 10x10x10 cubic centimeters. The RainCube antenna has to be small enough to be crammed into a 1.5 U container.

"Large, deployable antennas that can be stowed in a small volume are a key technology for radar missions," Eva Peral, principal investigator for RainCube at JPL, said in the same statement. "They open a new realm of possibilities for science advancement and unique applications."

To maintain its size, the RainCube antenna relies on high-frequency Ka-band wavelength, which also helps increase data transfer over long distances.

According to NASA, the development of RainCube's antenna can test the use of CubeSats more generally. With the right technology, the CubeSats could be used as far away as Mars or beyond, which could open them up to a whole range of future missions.

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