Tiny Satellites to Make Big Contributions to cloutet technology
Tiny satellites, some smaller than a shoe box, are currently orbiting around 200 miles above Earth, collecting data about our planet and the universe. It’s not just their small stature but also their accompanying smaller cost that sets them apart from the bigger commercial satellites that beam phone calls and GPS signals around the world, for instance. These SmallSats are poised to change the way we do science from space. Their cheaper price tag means we can launch more of them, allowing for constellations of simultaneous measurements from different viewing locations multiple times a day – a bounty of data which would be cost-prohibitive with traditional, larger platforms.
From proof of concept to science applications
When thinking about artificial satellites, we have to make a distinction between the spacecraft itself (often called the “satellite bus”) and the payload (usually a scientific instrument, cameras or active components with very specific functions). Typically, the size of a spacecraft determines how much it can carry and operate as a science payload. As technology improves, small spacecraft become more and more capable of supporting more and more sophisticated instruments.
These advanced nanosatellite payloads mean SmallSats have grown up and can now help increase our knowledge about Earth and the universe. This revolution is well underway; many governmental organizations, private companies and foundations are investing in the design of CubeSat buses and payloads that aim to answer specific science questions, covering a broad range of sciences including weather and climate on Earth, space weather and cosmic rays, planetary exploration and much more. They can also act as pathfinders for bigger and more expensive satellite missions that will address these questions.
Funded by NASA’s Earth science technology office, HARP will ride on the CubeSat spacecraft developed by Utah State University’s Space dynamics lab. Breaking the tradition of using consumer off-the-shelf parts for CubeSat payloads, the HARP team has taken a different approach. We’ve optimized our instrument with custom-designed and custom-fabricated parts specialized to perform the delicate multi-angle, multi-spectral polarization measurements required by HARP’s science objectives.
HARP is currently scheduled to the International Space Station. Shortly thereafter it will be released and become a fully autonomous, data-collecting satellite.
SmallSats – big science
HARP is designed to see how aerosols interact with the water droplets and ice particles that make up clouds. Aerosols and clouds are deeply connected in Earth’s atmosphere – it’s aerosol particles that seed cloud droplets and allow them to grow into clouds that eventually drop their precipitation.
This interdependence implies that modifying the amount and type of particles in the atmosphere, via air pollution, will affect the type, size and lifetime of clouds, as well as when precipitation begins. These processes will affect Earth’s global water cycle, Energy balance and climate.
For now, size still matters
But the nature of CubeSats still restricts the science they can do. Limitations in power, storage and, most importantly, ability to transmit the information back to Earth impede our ability to continuously run our HARP instrument within a CubeSat platform.
So as another part of our effort, we’ll be observing how HARP does as it makes its scientific observations. Here at UMBC we’ve created the Center for Earth and Space Studies to study how well small satellites do at answering science questions regarding Earth systems and space. This is where HARP’s raw data will be converted and interpreted. Beyond answering questions about cloud/aerosol interactions, the next goal is to determine how to best use SmallSats and other technologies for Earth and space science applications. Seeing what works and what doesn’t will help inform larger space missions and future operations.
The SmallSat revolution, boosted by popular access to space via CubeSats, is now rushing toward the next revolution. The next generation of nanosatellite payloads will advance the frontiers of science. They may never supersede the need for bigger and more powerful satellites, but NanoSats will continue to expand their own role in the ongoing race to explore Earth and the universe.