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Mini-Satellites to be Launched to ISS to Study Earth's Thermosphere

Aug 10, 2016 03:45 AM EDT
CubeSats are set to launched to International Space Station in a mission to study the lower thermosphere of the Earth.
(Photo : By Svobodat (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

A total of 50 two-kilogram satellites are being set to launch to the International Space Station later this year to study the layer of the Earth's atmosphere found between 200 and 380 kilometers above the ground.

The mini-satellites, dubbed as "cubesats", are part of the European-led QB-50 project participated by 48 universities and research institutes from 28 nations, including United States, China, Canada, Italy, France, Australia, Korea and United Kingdom.

According to The Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, the cubesats will carry a set of standardized sensors for multi-point, in-situ, long-duration measurements of key parameters and constituents in the largely unexplored lower thermosphere and ionosphere.

Thermosphere is the interface between the Earth and the space. It is the region of the atmosphere where much of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the Sun collides with Earth, generating auroras and possible hazards that can potentially affect power grids and communications.

"The thermosphere affects us in many ways," said Dr Elias Aboutanios from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and project leader of UNSW's E-co CubeSat satellite, in a report from ABC News. "[The Thermosphere] affects our weather here on the ground. It's very important for our understanding of our entire atmosphere,"

The cubesats will be launched by an Orbital ATK Antares rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia, inside a Cygnus cargo freighter in December. A month or so after its arrival in the International Space Station, it will be deployed from the ISS's orbit of 380 kilometers and drift down towards the target region.

The mini-satellites are believed to operate for three to nine months, orbiting the thermosphere, before atmospheric drag decays its orbit. The cubesats will continue to explore the lower layers of the thermosphere as it progressively goes down, re-entering the atmosphere and burn up.

The re-entry process will also be evaluated by measuring a number of key parameter during descends, including the on-board temperature and deceleration of the cubesats.

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