Small Satellites Increase Access to Space

SRI International and NASA gave the final send-off to Radio Aurora Explorer (RAX) and its bevy of diminutive CubeSat satellites on November 19, 2010 as part of a space, weather, and atmospheric research project. The launch was accomplished with the assistance of an elderly Minotaur IV rocket by the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Space Test Program.

Genesat 1 small satellite

This is a CubeSat

The RAX mission goal is 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 are ultimately responsible.

The fact that fluctuating levels of electrical activity in the upper atmosphere cause radio signal disruption is well-known. The disruption is intensely annoying for amateur radio operators such as myself, as I recall from my days as KA5JQF! It is 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.

Easier in near-space than at home

My analogy with terrestrial weather forecasting actually overstates 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 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.

rocket launch photo

Minotaur rocket launching cube satellites into space – Image courtesy of NASA

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. RAX is the first NSF satellite mission to be launched by the DOD .

Space missions using CubeSats don’t need vast infrastructure development and funding, unlike Apollo. 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 good for student involvement.

Published in: on December 8, 2010 at 11:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nice!

    This would have been useful to know as i worked to come up with a capstone project idea. This area is really interesting and I’d love to contribute to outer space advancement in general.

    • Hi Benny,
      I just noticed a post on the NOAA website which you might find interesting. It is also about use of small satellites for understanding weather, although these satellites are merely in polar orbit, not outer space per se.

      Here’s the URL (it is a joint project of NASA and the NOAA) and an excerpt:

      The satellite, NASA’s NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), orbits Earth every 102 minutes, flying 512 miles above the surface, and capturing data from the Earth’s land, oceans, and atmosphere. The data is used by NOAA forecasters to detect the potential for dangerous weather conditions days – even several weeks – in advance.

      Regarding the fate of the RAX project, I think there was some sort of tracking problem with the solar sail, and the project managers lost track of the thing a few weeks after launch. But that hasn’t diminished the importance of CubeSat’s. I’ve seen them mentioned several times in the space-science news, always being put to good use.

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