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NASA Funds ASTRA-led Satellite to Map Waves in the Earth’s Ionosphere

An example of the evolution of plasma irregularities given an initial notional spectrum of seed perturbations [Retterer, 2010]. Such structures can cause problems with radio-signal propagation.

An example of the evolution of plasma irregularities given an initial notional
spectrum of seed perturbations [Retterer, 2010]. Such structures can cause problems with radio-signal propagation.

A team led by ASTRA LLC is one of five CubeSat missions selected by NASA for its Heliophysics Technology and Instrument Development or H-TIDeS program (formerly known as Low Cost Access to Space or LCAS). The team is composed of ASTRA, COSMIAC, AFRL, University of Texas at Dallas and Boston College. Together, they have four years to build and fly a mission that will construct an atlas of ionospheric variability. The satellite is called Scintillation Observations and Response of The Ionosphere to Electrodynamics (SORTIE), will weigh just 5kg, and will be no larger than a cereal box. SORTIE will collect data over the course of 6 months, which will allow scientists to describe the distribution of wave-like structures in the plasma density of the ionospheric F-region and to connect these variations to wave sources in the troposphere and in the high latitude thermosphere.

The mission will help researchers predict ionospheric disturbances such as that shown in the images above, providing improved warnings of when HF communications and GPS signals might be degraded or unavailable. In order to do this, SORTIE will carry two instruments for determining the structure of equatorial plasma: a miniature Ion Velocity Meter (mini-IVM) built by The University of Texas at Dallas, and a micro Planar Langmuir Probe (μPLP) built by the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque. The mission objectives will be achieved in a circular, low to middle inclination orbit by measuring low-latitude ion drifts and plasma structures at various spatial and temporal scales.

“The measurements from this little satellite will allow researchers to build better models of the ionosphere that will lead to predictions of communication outages and GPS disruptions caused by adverse space weather” said SORTIE Principal Investigator Dr. Geoff Crowley.

The mission benefits from the team members’ experience in managing small spacecraft missions (ASTRA, AFRL, UTD), integrating and building small spacecraft (UNM’s COSMIAC Center), designing, building, testing and flying space instrumentation (UTD, AFRL, ASTRA), and analyzing ground- and space-based ionospheric data to understand and predict the global thermosphere and ionosphere (AFRL, BC, ASTRA, UTD). ASTRA (Atmospheric & Space Technology Research Associates LLC) is a technology development company based in Boulder, CO, specializing in Space Weather.