Tiny twin satellites each only a little bigger than a juice box will be launched into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:20 a.m. (EST) on Thursday. The cubes were partially built by the University of New Hampshire's Space Science Center, according to a press release by the university's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS).
The cubes are called Focused Investigations of Relativistic Electron Burst Intensity, Range, and Dynamics (FIREBIRD II) "CubeSats." They will be added to the contents of the Delta II rocket carrying NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive mission satellite.
So, what are these mini-mighty satellites going to do? They will probe an area 400 miles above Earth for a dangerous mission - investigating microbursts.
Microbursts, according to the press release, occur when electrons make quick (nearly the speed of light) - but short-lived (100 milliseconds) - bursts. Scientists believe that microbursts are the main cause of the Earth's outer radiation belt losing particles after solar storms. The storms - and resulting change in radiation - can be hazardous to technology floating in space.
"We care about this because the belts' high-energy particles, particularly the electrons, pose a real risk to spacecraft," said Harlan Spence, UNH principal investigator for the FIREBIRD II mission. "So if we understand these physical processes better, we'll be able to predict how the radiation belts will behave and both protect the satellites we depend upon for telecommunications, weather monitoring and prediction, etcetera and design them to withstand this high-energy radiation."
The original 2013 FIREBIRD mission provided the best microburst data, according to Spence, "despite the size of the spacecraft." FIREBIRD II is expected "to provide the very first characterization of the spatial scale of microbursts, without which scientists won't fully understand the global consequences of the loss of energetic particles to Earth's atmosphere," according to the press release.
"We are starting to look in the key energy range of interest between what we see with the FIREBIRD nanosatellites and what we see with the Van Allen Probes, and from those comparisons we can start learning about the physics of how particles are lost from the radiation belts to the atmosphere," Spence said, according to the press release.
The satellites will share the ride to outer space (cutting costs) and be able to go to dangerous areas where bigger satellites can't. Once NASA launches them though the CubeSat Launch Initiative's Educational Launch of Nanoatellites Program, the CubeSats will be tucked away into a Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD) and ejected from the Delta II. After 60 minutes, the cubes will turn on and start transmitting data, according to the press release.
The endeavor is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) CubeSat-based Science Missions for Geospace and Atmospheric Research Program.