The Small Satellite Orbital Deployer (SSOD) in the grasp of the Kibo laboratory robotic arm in February 2014.
NASA plans to launch a small satellite that, if successful, could help climate scientists improve computer models depicting future manmade global warming. The satellite, dubbed "IceCube," is the first of six new CubeSat missions that were selected as part of a new initiative during this fiscal year, and the only one to focus on our home planet.
No word yet on whether the rapper of the same name feels like NASA is cramping his style.
CubeSats are a particular class of spacecraft known as nanosatellites, thanks to their small size. The typical CubeSat is about four inches long and weighs about 3 pounds; these small satellites hitch a ride on previously planned space missions, rather than requiring their own launch vehicle to get them into space. For NASA, CubeSats present an opportunity to test sophisticated instruments in a space environment, with the intention of using those instruments on subsequent, more expensive satellite missions.
“We're maturing technology to make it more ready for spaceflight in the future," Jeff Piepmeier, associate head of Goddard’s Microwave Instruments and Technology Branch, told Mashable.
With IceCube, which is also known as EarthSat-1, scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, will use the satellite to test a 874-gigahertz submillimeter-wave receiver designed to improve scientists' understanding of high-altitude ice clouds. Such clouds are comprised of ice crystals and supercooled water droplets that freeze upon contact with a surface.
Clouds comprised of such crystals and droplets include cirrus clouds, which often appear as high, thin and wispy clouds on a fair weather day.Clouds comprised of such crystals and droplets include cirrus clouds, which often appear as high, thin and wispy clouds on a fair weather day.
Depending on composition, thickness and location, clouds can either reflect more incoming solar radiation than they absorb, thereby offsetting some of global warming, or they can trap more outgoing infrared radiation from the Earth's surface, which enhances warming. Getting a better handle on these dynamics, especially on the role played by high altitude clouds, would help make climate change projections more accurate, scientists say.
The satellite will be about a foot long and just four inches wide, NASA said, and it will fly as part of a group of CubeSats, with the others focused on measuring various aspects of the Sun.
According to NASA, the instrument that IceCube will test is designed to shed light on a current gap in observations that exists in the middle to upper troposphere, at heights of about 20,000 to 35,000 feet, where ice clouds can be "too opaque" for infrared and visible sensors to penetrate. Microwave wavelengths, on the other hand, are not sensitive to ice, a NASA press release stated.
“We plan to leverage as much commercially developed technology as possible," Piepmeier said. "This particular receiver that we’re maturing has a science application that NASA scientists are interested in and we’re trying to fulfill that mission.”
Ultimately, the team wants to use this receiver for an ice-cloud imaging radiometer for NASA’s proposed Aerosol-Cloud-Ecosystems (ACE) mission, which would shed insight on how much solar and infrared radiation ice clouds are absorbing and reflecting. No other mission currently measures the real time effects of these clouds on the Earth's radiation budget, Piepmeier said.
The IceCube satellite is expected to be ready for launch within the next two yearsThe IceCube satellite is expected to be ready for launch within the next two years, and once in orbit it will remain there for only a few months, which is far shorter than the typical lifetime of a large satellite, which tend to be in orbit for at least five-to-10 years. However, this one will cost just 1% of the typical price tag of a "full-fledged science mission," Piepmeier added.
According to Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who is not involved in the IceCube project, the composition of clouds is a key factor that needs to be better understood in computer model simulations of the planet's atmosphere.
"There certainly are issues related to ice in clouds: Many clouds are supercooled, below the freezing point, and are dependent on the right kind of nucleus to form an ice particle," he wrote in an email to Mashable. "For climate it makes a difference in terms of the brightness of clouds and thus how much radiation they reflect. It may also affect the precipitation potential (how much hangs around vs. falls out)."
Trenberth said improving computer models' simulation of clouds is likely to be the main payoff of NASA's cloud-focused satellite project.
Private sector CubeSat companies
NASA's push into CubeSat development, which is being pursued in concert with the private sector and universities, comes at the same time as the private sector small satellite industry is going through a growth spurt.
Companies like PlanetLabs and SkyBox have already demonstrated their ability to successfully launch satellites into orbit at a fraction of the cost of conventional large spacecraft. These companies are looking to use small satellites to accomplish a range of profit-yielding tasks, from helping Wall Street analysts gauge Wal-Mart sales trends by counting the number of cars in store parking lots nationwide, to monitoring the destruction of rainforests.
Skybox Imaging HD video of conflict in Tripoli by Tranganhnam88
Above, Skybox Imaging HD video of conflict in Tripoli.
SkyBox Imaging, for example, is already using its satellites to provide HD video of the Earth, including capturing a video of the intense fighting in Tripoli, Libya this week.
In a sign of the popularity and potential applications of CubeSat technology, Google acquired five-year-old SkyBox in June for $500 million in cash.
Tags: CLIMATE, CLOUDS, NASA, SKYBOX, SPACE, U.S., US & World