Pioneering NASA mini weather satellite ends its mission

(eight February 2021 – JPL) RainCube, designed to check storms, was the primary to fly a radar science instrument on a CubeSat.

After practically 2 half of years in orbit, a shoebox-size climate satellite tv for pc phoned house one final time earlier than plunging into Earth’s ambiance and burning up on Dec. 24, 2020. RainCube (Radar in a CubeSat) was a expertise demonstration meant to point out that shrinking a climate radar right into a low-cost, miniature satellite tv for pc known as a CubeSat might present science-quality knowledge.

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RainCube (courtesy: JPL)

RainCube was deployed on July 13, 2018, from the Worldwide Area Station and had a major mission of three months. The CubeSat’s instrument “noticed” rain and other forms of precipitation by bouncing radar alerts off of raindrops, ice, and snowflakes, and measuring the power and the time it took for the alerts to return to the satellite tv for pc. It supplied scientists with photos of what was occurring within storms around the globe.

Radar devices on full-size Earth-observing satellites have carried out such measurements for years. “However the important thing factor with RainCube wasn’t bringing in new science,” mentioned Simone Tanelli, RainCube principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “As a substitute, it was displaying that we might provide you with related knowledge with a field that’s roughly 100 occasions smaller in quantity than a full-size satellite tv for pc.”

RainCube lasted far longer than the preliminary three months it was scheduled for, permitting researchers to gather knowledge on hurricanes Marco and Laura in 2020 concurrently one other CubeSat known as TEMPEST-D. The 2 CubeSats used several types of devices to gather disparate, however complementary, observations that supplied researchers with a 3D look inside these churning storms.

“That opened the door to one thing that Earth scientists are getting actually enthusiastic about, which is utilizing a number of CubeSats on the identical time to check our planet,” mentioned Shannon Statham, RainCube venture supervisor at JPL.

Filling within the Blanks

Earth’s ambiance is in fixed movement, and a few phenomena – like storms – can change from minute to minute. Present satellites in low-Earth orbit can observe a storm a couple of times a day relying on the storm’s location. Which means many hours can cross between observations of a single storm. Flying a fleet of satellites spaced minutes aside might present researchers with fine-grained temporal knowledge to assist to fill in these protection gaps.

However a full-size Earth-observing satellite tv for pc can value tons of of tens of millions of {dollars} to construct, launch, and function, and plenty of are as giant as vehicles or buses. “It’d be unattainable to fly a fleet of those full-size satellites as a result of it wouldn’t be inexpensive,” mentioned Tanelli.

CubeSats, alternatively, can vary from one thing concerning the dimension of a cereal field to a toaster oven, and their construct, deployment, and operations can value lower than $10 million. This lower cost tag might give researchers the prospect to fly a number of of those tiny satellites on the identical time.

Large Issues in Little Packages

Nevertheless, a CubeSat’s diminutive stature requires intensive engineering to shrink down an instrument whereas preserving its capacity to gather and transmit scientific knowledge. Different gear, such because the radar antenna that receives alerts, should even be revamped.

That’s the place expertise demonstrations like RainCube are available. For this explicit mission, engineers whittled down the center of a full-size radar instrument to solely the necessities and redesigned how the elements match collectively. The antenna – impressed by an antenna developed by the College of Southern California for his or her Aeneas CubeSat – went from being a inflexible construction to one thing akin to an umbrella with collapsible parts that would fold into an ultra-compact quantity and unfurl as soon as in area. RainCube engineers carried out this mechanical origami, constructed their creation, after which launched the CubeSat inside three years.

“RainCube is my child,” mentioned Statham, who – together with Tanelli and JPL Principal Investigator Eva Peral – has been with the venture since its inception. “So its ending is bittersweet as a result of we had been hoping to have a bit extra time with it, however we’ve proven that science missions with CubeSats are doable, which is what we got down to do.”

Extra In regards to the Mission

RainCube is a technology-demonstration mission to allow Ka-band precipitation radar applied sciences on a low-cost, quick-turnaround platform. It’s sponsored by NASA’s Earth Science Know-how Workplace by way of the InVEST-15 program. JPL labored with Tyvak Nanosatellite Techniques, Inc. in Irvine, California, to fly the RainCube mission. Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

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