SRI International gave the final send-off to Radio Aurora Explorer and its bevy of diminutive CubeSat satellites on Friday November 19, as part of a significant space weather and atmospheric research project. The launch was accomplished with assistance from an elderly Minotaur IV rocket by the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program, according to an announcement made by SRI.
Mission Radio Aurora Explorer (“RAX”) has a single goal: To improve understanding of intermittent and unpredictable distortion of earthly communications signals. Radio frequency and global positioning system (GPS) signals are adversely affected by upper atmosphere turbulence. This turbulence is like a whirlwind of ionizing activity, due to intense electrical currents that propagate from time-to-time through space. Solar wind storms, supposedly due to sunspot activity or coronal flares (or so I was told when I studied such things) are ultimately responsible.
The fact that fluctuating levels of electrical activity in the upper atmosphere cause radio signal disruption is well-known. This disruption is intensely annoying for amateur radio operators such as myself, as I recall from my days as KA5JQF. It is more than annoying for GPS users, and can be a critical concern for navigation systems on Earth.
With the data collection and experimental results from the RAX research, scientists will gain a better understanding of ionospheric turbulence. Near-space weather forecasting of sorts will finally become a reality. My analogy with terrestrial weather forecasting actually over-states the complexity. Predicting incidence and duration of radio signal disruptions, due to high solar activity and geomagnetic conditions, will probably be easier than meteorological forecasting of Earth’s very complicated weather systems. Space weather prediction is challenging primarily because of the difficulty of collecting data, and corroborating cause and effect.
Ecumenical Space Missions
The RAX Space Mission deserves special attention for another reason. It requires the collective participation of many astrophysicists, geophysicists, astronomers and graduate students from around the world. Radio telescopes and scientific radar installations in Alaska, Norway and Puerto Rico’s Arecibo are hubs for the research project team.
I hope we’ll see a many more CubeSats in days to come, and for a variety of purposes. They were developed to increase both research and educational access to space. They are inexpensive, and lower the cost of space research. Space missions using CubeSats don’t need vast infrastructure development and funding. Missions can be initiated by smaller, less wealthy countries and research institutions. CubeSat design timelines are very short, compared to traditional satellite technology. That’s why they’re particularly well-suited for student involvement.