Mini Satellite Constellation to Explore the Outer Reaches of Our Atmosphere

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In January 2017 a constellation of miniature satellites known as ‘cubesats’ will be released from the International Space Station 380 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. They will drift down into the lower thermosphere, the outermost layer of our atmosphere that soars between 200 and 380 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. From this point the satellites will begin the most in-depth investigation of this region ever undertaken.

They are part of an international project known as ‘QB-50’. Each satellite and its payload is being prepared by a different team from around the world, with teams from more than 28 countries taking part. Andrew Dempster, of the University of New South Wales team from Australia, said “This region is poorly understood and hard to measure. And yet, it’s the interface between our planet and space. It’s where much of the ultra-violet and x-ray radiation collides with Earth, generating Auroras and potential hazards that can affect power grids and communications.”

These tiny satellites measure only ten centimeters by ten centimeters and weigh about a kilogram. This small size amounts to a massive benefit in terms of data gathered per dollar, with hugely reduced launch costs per satellite. Naomi Mathers of the Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre in Canberra elaborates “If you put one very large expensive satellite up, you’ll get one data set and that will be it and it’ll cost you an awful lot of money, but if you have 50 satellites, you get 50 data sets and it hasn’t cost you as much money.”

    Artistic rendition of the UNSW-Ec0 cubesat.  Image:    UNSW Websites  This website HomeEngineering The Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER).Artistic rendition of the UNSW-Ec0 cubesat. Image:The Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER).

This is a particularly exciting project for Australia, as one of the only OECD nations without a space agency. Three Australian teams are working on Cubesat payloads, including instrumentation to measure atomic composition, electron temperature, and density of plasma.

The satellite constellation will engage in its work for three to 12 months, with the satellites gradually falling back to Earth and burning up as their orbits decay.

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