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6 Tiny Satellites That Are Changing How We See Earth

6 Tiny Satellites That Are Changing How We See Earth

6 Tiny Satellites That Are Changing How We See Earth

HARP: Hyper-Angular Rainbow Polarimeter

What’s better
than taking a picture of a cloud to figure out its size and shape? Taking a
bunch of pictures all around it. That way you get a three-dimensional view
without having to worry about missing something. The HARP CubeSat is going to
do just that: make observations of cloud droplets and tiny airborne particles
like soot and dust with a modified camera lens from multiple angles. This will
give us a full rendering of what’s going on inside the clouds, specifically,
how those airborne particles act as “seeds” for water vapor to condense on and
form cloud droplets. Since so many of those particles are in the air as a
result of man-made pollution, we want to understand how they may be affecting
clouds, weather and climate.

6 Tiny Satellites That Are Changing How We See Earth

RAVAN: Radiometer Assessment using Vertically
Aligned Nanotubes

Anyone who’s
worn a black shirt on a summer day knows how much sunlight and heat it absorbs.
The RAVAN 3-unit CubeSat, however, carries “blacker than black” technology –
carbon nanotubes set up like a bundle of drinking straws that suck up nearly
all the sunlight and energy that reach them to the point that your black shirt
seems merely dark grey in comparison. Flying in low Earth orbit, RAVAN’s super
sensitive instrument will detect tiny changes in the amount of sunlight and
energy passing into and out of the top of the atmosphere. The amount of energy
passing through the top of the atmosphere is where the net accounting of
Earth’s energy budget happens – one of the major measurements we need in order
to understand the effects of greenhouse gases on global warming and climate

6 Tiny Satellites That Are Changing How We See Earth

MiRaTA: Microwave Radiometer Technology

That long skinny
piece coming out of the bottom right side under the solar panel? That’s a
measuring tape. It’s doubling as a communications antenna on the
MiRaTA CubeSat that will be a mini-weather station in space. This 3-unit, shoe
box-sized satellite is testing out new, miniaturized technology to measure
temperature, water vapor, and cloud ice in the atmosphere. They’ll be tracking
major storms, including hurricanes, as well as everyday weather. If this test
flight is successful, the new, smaller technology will likely be incorporated
into major – large – weather satellite missions in the future that are part of our
national infrastructure.

6 Tiny Satellites That Are Changing How We See Earth


The aptly named
IceCube will measure – you guessed it – ice in our atmosphere. Unlike the
droplets that make up rain, ice is one of the harder things to measure from
space. IceCube is a 3-unit CubeSat about the size of a loaf of bread outfitted
with a new high-frequency microwave radiometer, an instrument that measures
naturally occurring radiation emitted by stuff in the atmosphere – cloud
droplets, rain, and the ice particles at the tops of clouds. This will be the
first space test of the new microwave radiometer that has to balance its tiny
size and low power with being sensitive enough to detect cloud ice. 

6 Tiny Satellites That Are Changing How We See Earth

CYGNSS: Cyclone, Global Navigation Satellite

What do GPS
signals do when they’re not talking to your phone? A lot of them are just
bouncing harmlessly off the planet’s surface – a fact that the CYGNSS mission
is taking advantage of to measure wind speed over the ocean. Eight identical
small satellites, each about the size of a microwave oven, flying in formation
carry custom modified GPS receivers pointed at the oceans. When the water is
smooth – not windy – the GPS signals reflect back uniformly, like the moon on a
pond reflected as if in a mirror. When the water is choppy – windy – the
signals reflect back in in the same direction but distorted, like the moon reflection
on a choppy pond being distorted by ripples. Flying eight satellites in
formation means the CYGNSS mission can measure wind speed across more of the
ocean at once, which will help with understanding tropical storms and

6 Tiny Satellites That Are Changing How We See Earth

TROPICS: Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and
storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats

An important
way to improve forecasts of hurricane and tropical cyclone intensity is to see
what’s going on inside and around them while they’re happening. That’s the goal
of the TROPICS mission, 12 CubeSats that will fly in formation to track the
temperature and humidity of storm environments. The TROPICS CubeSats will get
very frequent measurements, similar to X-rays, that cut through the overall
cloud-cover so we can see the storm’s underlying structure. The storm
structures known as the eyewall – tall clouds, wind and rain around the eye –
and rainbands – the rainy parts of the spiral arms – give us clues about
whether a storm is primed to intensify into a category 4 or 5 storm, something
everyone in their path needs to know.

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