A NASA constellation of four storm tracking CubeSats are getting a new launch location as they prepare to study tropical cyclones beginning in the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season. NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats (TROPICS) will observe the atmosphere to increase our understanding of hurricanes, typhoons, and other intense weather.
Rocket Lab has announced the mission now will be sent into orbit on two Electron rockets – each carrying two TROPICS CubeSats – from Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand in May to maintain the target launch window in time for this year’s hurricane season.
Each launch, traveling to separate orbital planes, will place a pair of the small satellites in orbit to increase the frequency in which tropical cyclones are measured from space. The TROPICS constellation enables researchers to monitor the evolution of tropical cyclones with a frequency of about once per hour as compared to currently only once every 6 hours. Each TROPICS satellite is an identical 3U (1U, or unit = 10cm x 10cm x 10cm) CubeSat that is about the size of a loaf of bread and weighs about 12 pounds.
The TROPICS team is led by Dr. William Blackwell at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts, and includes researchers from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several universities and commercial partners. NASA awarded the launch services to Rocket Lab in November 2022, as part of the agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract.
A total of 21 universities applied for this year’s UNP Mission Concepts-1 Summer Series. Proposals were reviewed by a mix of NASA, Air Force, and contractor personnel who selected universities based on the educational impact, university program impact/development, minority outreach/support, and NASA/Department of Defense relevance. This year’s selections are:
Florida Institute of Technology – Melbourne, Florida
University of the Virgin Islands – U.S. Virgin Islands
University of South Florida – Tampa, Florida
University of New Mexico – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Missouri University of Science and Technology – Rolla, Missouri
New Mexico State University – Las Cruces, New Mexico
Columbia University – New York City, New York
Tarleton State University – Stephenville, Texas
Of this year’s awardees, one is a historically Black university, marking the first time a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) has won a UNP competition and the second time in 12 years a HBCU has won a CSLI competition. Two other awardees are Hispanic serving institutions. The teams will meet at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a two-day kickoff meeting in May, followed by a month-long stay at the Air Force’s UNP facilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico in June, where four students will be hired as interns with the Space Dynamics Laboratory.
After spending one month in New Mexico, they will return to their university for the following month where throughout the summer they and other participating students will take part in educational workshops and exercises. The students will be seated near SmallSats experts for continuous feedback and guidance to help improve university proposals and increase those teams’ potential of being selected to fly to space as part of NASA’s CSLI and the U.S. Air Force UNP. Both CSLI and UNP will make their selections for future flights in 2024.
Final presentations will take place in Albuquerque and although not required, participants are encouraged to also attend the Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah. The program provides funding for all travel – including kickoff, final event, and in-person reviews – allowing faculty and students to formulate teams without straining university resources.
CSLI is one of many ways NASA is attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines. This strengthens NASA’s and the nation’s future workforce. Further, the initiative promotes and develops innovative technology partnerships among NASA, U.S. industry, and other sectors for the benefit of agency programs and projects.
Four small, shoebox-sized satellites are being prepared to launch to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 49 mission. The small satellites, called CubeSats, will study a range of topics – from satellite communication methods to space weather to testing technology for robotic assembly of large telescopes.
The CubeSats will hitch a ride on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft set to deliver additional science, crew supplies, and hardware to the station during the company’s 26th commercial resupply services mission for NASA. Launch is targeted at 4:19 p.m. EST from Launch Complex 39A at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The first U.S. high school to send a CubeSat to space back in 2013, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s Research and Education Vehicle for Evaluating Radio Broadcasts satellite aims to study the use of iridium as a primary radio communication method. Additionally, the satellite will demonstrate using a passive magnet onboard and the Earth’s magnetic field for stabilization rather than using an attitude determination and control system for pointing accuracy and stabilization for iridium. What makes this satellite even more notable is that it was a system’s engineering project. The students selected space-grade parts, wired the electronics for the satellite, wrote the drivers to control the different systems, and coded the flight software.
“What’s special about TJREVERB isn’t necessarily the mission, it’s what we did. These kids literally built a satellite the way the industry would build a satellite; we selected parts from vendors and got those parts to work together,” said Kristen Kucko, robotics lab director and the school’s space faculty advisor. “This is an engineering feat.”
The University of Michigan’s Measurement of Actuator Response In Orbit (MARIO) is a technology demonstration that will show how test structures made of a piezoelectric material – a type of material that bends when electricity is applied and can also generate electricity when bent – perform in low-Earth orbit. This will allow the spacecraft to bend or move without any rotating parts and could one day be used to point and adjust telescope mirrors more accurately.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Plasma Enhancement in The Ionosphere-Thermosphere Satellite (petitSat) will study density irregularities in the Earth’s ionosphere – a tiny fraction of the atmosphere made of plasma, or ionized gas. During long distance radio communication, the ionosphere reflects radio waves back to Earth. Disturbances in the upper atmosphere can change the shape of the ionosphere, creating a funhouse mirror effect and distorting these radio waves. The mission will use two instruments to measure the structure and motion of plasma in the ionosphere resulting from these changes in the upper atmosphere to better understand how these affect satellite communications.
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s Scintillation Prediction Observations Research Task (SPORT) will also look to the ionosphere to study space weather. The joint mission between the U.S. and Brazil will examine the formation of plasma bubbles, which sometimes scatter radio signals. Understanding how these bubbles are formed and how their evolution impacts communication signals can help scientists improve the reliability of communication and navigation systems.
“The more we learn about space weather – and how to predict it – the better we can protect our astronauts, spacecraft, and technology,” said Shelia Nash-Stevenson, SPORT project manager.
All of these were selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI), which provides U.S. educational institutions, nonprofits with an education/outreach component, informal educational institutions (museums and science centers), and NASA centers with access to space at a low cost. Once the CubeSat selections are made, NASA’s Launch Services Program works to pair them with a launch that is best suited to carry them as auxiliary payloads, taking into account the planned orbit and any constraints the CubeSat missions may have.
Two small NASA-sponsored research satellites, or CubeSats, are preparing to launch on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket as part of the agency’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 39 mission. The rocket, attached to the underside of the company’s Cosmic Girl aircraft, will be air launched when the 747-aircraft reaches its specified altitude over the Pacific Ocean. Takeoff is currently scheduled for June 29, 2022, from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Once LauncherOne is released from Cosmic Girl, the rocket’s NewtonThree first stage engine will ignite to start the launch sequence that will send the CubeSats into low-Earth orbit.
The two satellites comprising ELaNa 39 are NASA Langley Research Center’s GPX2 and the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Compact Total Irradiance Monitor-Flight Demonstration, or CTIM-FD. They were selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) – a NASA effort to provide U.S. educational institutions, informal educational institutions such as museums and science centers, nonprofits with an education/outreach component, and NASA centers with low-cost access to space.
Langley’s GPX2 will use commercial-off-the-shelf differential global positioning systems to demonstrate autonomous, close-proximity operations for small satellites in orbit, such as flying in formation or docking. If successful, this could help reduce costs and greatly simplify in-orbit operations.
CTIM-FD will spend one year in orbit, measuring total solar irradiance (TSI) – data that describes the amount of incident solar radiation that reaches the Earth from the Sun. These levels impact local weather conditions as well as global climate change. The flight demonstration will show whether small satellites are as effective at measuring TSI as the larger, space-based remote sensors in use currently.
The small satellites were selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides low-cost access to space for U.S. educational institutions, NASA centers, and others to develop and demonstrate novel technologies in space and to inspire and grow the next generation of scientists, engineers, and technologists.
The CubeSats were developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; The Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida; and the University of South Alabama in Mobile. The CubeSats will be deployed from the space station.
NASA has selected over 200 CubeSat missions from more than 100 unique organizations representing 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico through the CubeSat Launch Initiative since 2010. To date, 134 CubeSat missions have launched into space through ELaNa rideshare opportunities.
NASA has selected eight small research satellites from seven states to fly as either auxiliary payloads or deployments from the International Space Station (ISS). These missions are currently planned to launch in the 2023-2026 timeframe. The selected CubeSats were proposed by educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, and NASA centers in response to NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) call for proposals issued on August 9, 2021.
The organizations and the CubeSats chosen during this selection round are:
Arizona State University – Star-Planet Activity Research CubeSat (SPARCS)
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – Virtual Super-Resolution Optics with Reconfigurable Swarms (VISORS)
NASA Langley Research Center – ARCSTONE
California Polytechnic State University – Additively Manufactured Deployable Radiator with Oscillating Heat Pipes (AMDROHPSat)
Olin College – Space Weather Atmospheric Reconfigurable Multiscale Experiment (SWARM-EX)
University of New Hampshire – 3U3-A
Utah State University – Active Cooling for Multispectral Earth Sensors (ACMES)
Arizona State University – Deployable Optical Receiver Aperture (DORA)