NASA has selected two CubeSats built by students at the University of Michigan to launch aboard rockets flying between 2016 and 2018. This will be the 6th round of CubeSat launches through the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI). 12 other CubeSat projects from universities and research centers around the nation will also take part.
What is a CubeSat?
A CubeSat is miniaturized satellite. The name comes from its small, cube-like shape. It carries one or multiple scientific instruments for space research. A typical CubeSat is a mere 4 inches per side and weighs less than 3 pounds.
Why Are CubeSats Important?
The CubeSat is important because its size and weight make it an ideal choice for research on a budget. It removes one of the primary barriers to market entry for space research—build and launch cost.
The CSLI is also part of NASA’s broader mission to expand STEM educational opportunities for students. The CubeSat trades complexity for simplicity. Many CubeSats use off-the-shelf electronics. The low cost and simple design make it possible for students and universities to build their own workable space research satellites.
The CubeSat Science
University of Michigan will be providing two CubeSat projects for launch. Each will perform its own scientific research. One project contains the Beacon Experiment (TBEx). It is a collection of multi-frequency beacons on a tandem pair of nanosatellites. The beacons communicate with a sensor set in the Central Pacific to measure atmospheric interactions in the troposphere and how it affects the upper atmosphere and ionosphere.
The other CubeSat contains the Miniature Tether Electrodynamics Experiment (MiTEE). And this is where things get a lot more complicated. It will be studying the feasibility of a miniature electrodynamic tether and how it interacts with the electrically conductive plasmas in low Earth orbit created by ionizing solar radiation.
Basically, the tether (a conductive wire) will be moved through the Earth’s magnetic field at specific angles, creating electric potential along the wire that can be used in a number of ways. The researchers also hope to study its feasibility as a propellentless propulsion system through use of electromagnetic principles. There is no easy way to simplify this and the plasma physics component is unfortunately a bit beyond my own understanding, but I welcome any comments on the matter.
Photo Credit: NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative