Spaceflight Insider

NASA small satellites poised to take a new view of Earth

Small satellites: TROPICS, a new NASA Earth-observing mission announced this year, will study the insides of hurricanes with a constellation of 12 CubeSats. Image Credit: MIT Lincoln Laboratory

TROPICS, a new NASA Earth-observing mission announced this year, will study the insides of hurricanes with a constellation of 12 CubeSats. Image & Caption Credit: MIT Lincoln Laboratory

This month, NASA will launch the first of a suite of six next-generation, Earth-observing small satellite missions to demonstrate innovative new methods for studying our changing planet. These small satellites range in size from a loaf of bread to a small washing machine with a mass of just a few pounds to 400 pounds (180 kilograms). The small size of these satellites lowers development and launch costs, as they can often piggyback as a secondary payload on a rocket carrying a larger satellite. 

“NASA is increasingly using small satellites to tackle important science problems across our mission portfolio,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “They also give us the opportunity to test new technological innovations in space and broaden the involvement of students and researchers to get hands-on experience with space systems.”

Advances in small satellite technologies have led to innovations in how researchers approach studying the Earth from space. The six new missions, five of which are scheduled to launch in the next several months, will debut new methods for measuring hurricanes, Earth’s energy budget, aerosol, and weather.

“NASA is expanding small satellite technologies and using low-cost, small satellites, miniaturized instruments, and robust constellations to advance Earth science and provide societal benefit through applications,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington.

The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) mission will launch later this month. RAVAN is a CubeSat that will demonstrate new technology for measuring small changes in Earth’s energy budget at the top of the atmosphere; such measurements are essential for understanding the effects of greenhouse gases on climate. The RAVAN mission is led by Bill Swartz of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Two CubeSats – IceCube and HARP – are scheduled to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) in spring 2017. Both satellites will improve researchers’ ability to study clouds and their impact on climate and weather. IceCube will use a miniature, high-frequency microwave radiometer to measure cloud ice. The Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter (HARP) will utilize a new method that views a target from multiple perspectives to analyze airborne particles and the distribution of cloud droplet sizes.

Artist's concept of one of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System satellites deployed in space above a hurricane. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s concept of one of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System satellites deployed in space above a hurricane. Image & Caption Credit: NASA

MiRATA – the Microwave Radiometer Technology Acceleration mission – is scheduled to launch into space in early 2017 with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System-1. MiRATA is a spacecraft the size of a shoebox with many of the capabilities of a large weather satellite. MiRATA’s miniature sensors will capture data on temperature, water vapor, and cloud ice which can be employed in weather forecasting and storm tracking.

The RAVAN, HARP, IceCube, and MiRaTA CubeSat missions are funded and managed by NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office (ESTO) in the Earth Science Division. ESTO supports scientists and engineers at NASA centers, academic institutions, and industry to develop new methods for observing Earth from space.

“The affordability and rapid build times of these CubeSat projects allow for more risk to be taken, and the more risk we take now[,] the more capable and reliable the instruments will be in the future,” said Pamela Millar, ESTO flight validation lead. “These small satellites are changing the way we think about making instruments and measurements. The cube has inspired us to think more outside the box.”

NASA’s early investment in small satellite technologies has produced two robust science mission using small satellite constellations, the first of which is scheduled to launch in December.

CYGNSS, the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, will use a constellation of eight microsatellites to gauge wind velocities over Earth’s oceans, thereby increasing the ability of researchers to understand and predict tropical cyclones. CYGNSS is scheduled to launch on December 12 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

In March of this year, NASA announced the start of a mission to study the insides of hurricanes using a constellation of 12 CubeSats. TROPICS – the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats – will utilize radiometer instruments based on the MiRATA CubeSat, which will make frequent measurements of temperature, precipitation, and cloud properties. The CubeSats will be dispatched into three independent orbital planes to allow the constellation to observe changes in tropical cyclones at regular intervals of every 21 minutes.

Video courtesy of NASA



Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

Reader Comments

Space exploration & satellites in outer space are all constructed of Earth materials. The materials sent to space from the planet cost the planet a portion of its gravitational field, its centrifugal force in orbit, its heat bearing capacity, & displacement. A normal gravitational field restrains the atmosphere from excessive expansion for a given heat load. Expanded atmosphere is more easily penetrated by solar radiation. Absence of sufficient material to absorb ambient heat causes the remaining materials to absorb more than a normal amount of heat. Average temps rise everywhere. Antarctica melting? Reduction of earth’s matter reduces its centrifugal force and inertia; thus Earth’s ability to escape solar gravitation is weakened. Earth orbits the sun at approx. 6 million miles less distance (on average!) now since the beginning of the space age & the 1st nuclear test. The planet is now in a long slow orbital decay to the sun. My estimates average only 300 to 500 years of future time remaining for the entire planet Earth – provided no more mass is lost by means of nuclear destruction of matter or jettison to space.

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