Of course, almost everything comes with a downside, and the solar flares and solar storms that generate the gorgeous aurora light shows can also wreak havoc with electronics on Earth, thanks to the sudden spikes in radiation. It’s difficult to predict how solar flares will affect the Earth, partly because most of the potentially damaging activity takes place in the thermosphere, a region above the Earth that we still know very little about.
We’ll soon know more, though, thanks to the QB50 project, a multinational initiative that will launch 50 CubeSat satellites into the thermosphere to gather data. The majority of the satellites, which were contributed from 48 universities and research institutions from 28 countries, will be launched to the International Space Station in December, and from there into orbit in the thermosphere. It will be the largest, most thorough study of the region ever undertaken.
“This region is poorly understood and hard to measure,” said Andrew Dempster, Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at the University of New South Wales. “And yet, it’s the interface between our planet and space. It’s where much of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the Sun collides with the Earth, and generates auroras and potential hazards that can affect power grids, communications and GPS receivers.”
Each satellite will have different assigned tasks – thermosphere-related as well as for other individual research purposes. The ACSER-developed satellite UNSW-Ec0, for example, will study the atomic composition of the thermosphere, and will have a few additional unrelated experiments to conduct. One of those involves a space-enabled GPS receiver, developed by Dempster, that will study how signals reflected from Earth pass through the ionosphere; another is centered around testing the reliability of a microkernel computer chip in the harsh radiation of space. Another computer chip will be tested to see if it can self-correct malfunctions caused by cosmic rays, preventing the satellite from crashing.
Then there’s RAMSES (Rapid Manufacture of Space Exposed Structures). UNSW-EC0’s chassis was 3D printed from thermoplastic, and the USNW team is eager to see how it holds up in the unfriendly environment of the thermosphere. If it does well, it’ll be a big step for researchers who are exploring 3D printing as an inexpensive alternative in the manufacture of satellites.
The team behind the UNSW-Ec0 included researchers and students, many working on a volunteer basis; among them were Dr. Elias Aboutanios, Project Leader; Dr. Barnaby Osborne, Project Manager; Dr. Joon Wayn Cheong, Technical Lead; Dr. Eamon Glennon, Namuru GPS Payload Lead; Dr. Ediz Cetin, RUSH FPGA Payload Lead; Prof. Gernot Heiser, Sel4 Payload Lead; and student volunteers including John Chung Lam, William Andrews, Benjamin Southwell, Tom Croston, Luyang Li, Daniel Sherratt, James Bultitude, Shannon Green, Tim Broadbent, William Huynh, and Yiwei Han.
The satellites will orbit anywhere from 3 to 12 months, depending on how long they last – no one knows for sure, as this type of experiment hasn’t been attempted before. (It’d be cool if the 3D printed satellite lasted the longest, wouldn’t it?) On December 30, the satellites, which weigh about 2kg each, will be launched in an Orbital ATK Antares rocket from Wallops Island in Virginia. Shortly after they arrive at the International Space Station, they’ll be fired into orbit from the NanoRacks CubeSat launcher.And then? We get to learn things that no one has ever known before – including answers that may help us to prevent blackouts and dangerous airline communication errors that can result from thermospheric disturbances.
“You’ve got vacuum, you’ve got wild temperature swings, but you also have a lot of radiation, cosmic rays, solar radiation,” said Dr. Elias Aboutanios, project leader for the USNW-Ec0 satellite. “These can upset electronics. So this will allow us to recover from these errors.”
Below, you can see a computer animation of USNW-Ec0 deploying into the thermosphere. Discuss all of this further in the 3D Printed Satellite forum over at 3DPB.com.