ASTRA™ DICE CubeSat Update: Successfully Captures First Ever SED Observations by a CubeSat

ASTRA™, Boulder, CO, recently updated the status of its Dynamic Ionosphere Cubesat Experiment (DICE) mission funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The DICE mission consists of twin satellites, named “Yahtzee” and “Farkle”, that are 10×10×15 cm, and weigh 2 kg each.

Artist's rendition of the DICE spacecraft in orbit (image credit: DICE consortium)

Artist’s rendition of the DICE spacecraft in orbit (image credit: DICE consortium)

Both satellites were launched on a Delta-II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in October, 2011. The goal of obtaining at least 6 months of scientific data from them has been met, and the DICE satellites continue to fly in an orbit that ranges from 820 to 450 km, one satellite chasing the other.

Recently, the satellites successfully made the first-ever Cubesat measurements of an ionospheric space weather phenomenon known as Storm Enhanced Density (SED).

Dr. Geoffrey Crowley, ASTRA CEO and Chief Scientist commented, “We accomplished the main objective of this mission – the first ever in-orbit measurement of an SED by a Cubesat.  This is a significant step in the utilization of CubeSat technology for understanding the formation of these atmospheric phenomena. It shows that CubeSats are capable of collecting valuable ionospheric measurements, and opens the door to a constellation of CubeSats to operationally monitor ionospheric space weather in near-real-time”

The scientific purpose of DICE is to understand the mechanism that creates regions of elevated plasma density (or SEDs) in the Earth’s ionosphere over the United States during magnetic storms. Scientists are not sure why the SEDs tend to occur in the American sector, rather than other regions of the world. When an SED occurs, it can have significant impacts on navigation, communication, and surveillance systems. These SEDs occur regularly during the afternoon times in the US, and have been observed from the ground by radars and networks of GPS receivers. SEDs have several times caused the automatic shutdown of the FAA’s WAAS system that informs airplane pilots about the reliability of their GPS navigation system. ASTRA’s DICE mission is the first CubeSat to observe and track these features as they form and evolve.

ASTRA was aided in the design and building of the DICE CubeSats by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory. Other accomplishments of the DICE mission include the development of a radio that permits orders of magnitude more data to be downloaded from these CubeSats than has been possible on previous CubeSat missions.  ASTRA is building a DICE follow-on called DIME (Dual-Probe Ionospheric Measurements of Electric-fields).

More information about the mission »