Small Packages to Test Big Space Technology Advances

This weekend, when
the next cargo resupply mission to the
International Space Station lifts off
from NASA Wallops Flight
Facility in Virginia, it will be carrying among its
supplies
and experiments three cereal box-sized satellites that will be
used to
test and demonstrate the next generation of
Earth-observing technology.

NASA has been increasing
its use of CubeSats — small
satellites based on several configurations of approximately
4
x 4 x 4-inch cubes — to put new technologies in orbit where
they can be
tested in the harsh environment of space before
being used as part of larger satellite
missions or
constellations of spacecraft.

The three
CubeSat missions launching on Orbital ATK’s ninth
commercial resupply mission represent
a broad range of
cutting-edge technologies housed in very small packages.


RainCube
— a Radar in a CubeSat — is just that: a
miniaturized precipitation-studying radar instrument
that
weighs just over 26 pounds. RainCube is smaller, has fewer
components, and
uses less power than traditional radar
instruments. NASA’s Earth
Science Technology Office

(ESTO) In-Space Validation of
Earth Science Technologies (InVEST) program
selected the
project to demonstrate that such a diminutive radar can be
operated successfully on a CubeSat platform.

This mission
marks the first time an active radar instrument
has been flown on a CubeSat.

If successful, RainCube
could open the door for lower-cost,
quick-turnaround constellation missions, in
which multiple
CubeSats work together to provide more frequent observations
than
a single satellite.

“A
constellation of RainCube radars would be able to observe
the internal
structure of weather systems as they evolve
according to processes that need to
be better characterized in
weather and climate forecasting models,” said RainCube
Principal Investigator Eva Peral of NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in
Pasadena, California.

RainCube will
use wavelengths in the high-frequency Ka-band of
the electromagnetic spectrum.
Ka wavelengths work with smaller
antennas (RainCube’s deployable antenna
measures at just half
a yard, or meter, across) and allow an exponential
increase in
data transfer over long distances — making RainCube a
demonstration in improved
communications as well. JPL
developed the RainCube instrument, while Tyvak Inc.
developed
the spacecraft.

CubeSats can also be used to test new subsystems and
techniques
for improving data collection from space. Radio
frequency interference (RFI) is
a growing problem for
space-based microwave radiometers, instruments important
for
studying soil moisture, meteorology, climate and other Earth
properties. As the number of RFI-causing
devices — including
cell phones, radios, and televisions — increases, it will
be
even more difficult for NASA’s satellite microwave radiometers
to collect
high-quality data.

To address this issue, NASA’s InVEST program funded a
team led
by Joel Johnson of The Ohio State University to develop

CubeRRT
, the
CubeSat Radiometer Radio Frequency
Interference Technology Validation mission.
“Our technology,”
said Johnson, “will make it so that our Earth-observing
radiometers can still continue to operate in the presence of
this
interference.”

RFI already affects data collected by Earth-observing
satellites. To mitigate this problem, measurements are
transmitted to the
ground where they are then processed to
remove any RFI-corrupted data. It is a
complicated process and
requires more data to be transmitted to Earth. With
future
satellites encountering even more RFI, more data could be
corrupted and
missions might not be able to meet their science
goals.

Johnson collaborated with technologists at JPL and
Goddard
Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, to develop the
CubeRRT
satellite to demonstrate the ability to detect RFI and
filter out RFI-corrupted
data in real time aboard the
spacecraft. The spacecraft was developed by Blue
Canyon
Technologies, Boulder, Colorado.

One of the radiometer-collected weather measurements
important
to researchers involves cloud processes, specifically storm
development and the identification of the time when rain begins
to fall.
Currently, weather satellites pass over storms just
once every three hours, not
frequently enough to identify many
of the changes in dynamic storm systems. But
the development
of a new, extremely-compact radiometer system could change
that.

NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder program selected
Steven
Reising of Colorado State University and partners at JPL to
develop,
build, and demonstrate a five-frequency radiometer
based on newly available
low-noise amplifier technologies
developed with support from ESTO. The
TEMPEST-D

(Temporal Experiment for Storms and Tropical
Systems Demonstration) mission
will validate the miniaturized
radiometer technology and demonstrate the
spacecraft’s ability
to perform drag maneuvers to control TEMPEST-D’s low-Earth
altitude and its position in orbit. The instrument fits into a
Blue Canyon
Technologies 6U CubeSat — the same size CubeSat
as RainCube and CubeRRT.

“With a train-like constellation of TEMPEST-like CubeSats,
we’d be able to take time samples every five to 10 minutes to
see how a storm
develops,” said Reising. This would improve
upon the three-hour satellite
revisit time, especially when
collecting data on tropical storms like
hurricanes that can
quickly intensify and change.

RainCube, CubeRRT and TEMPEST-D are currently integrated
aboard Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft and are awaiting launch on
an Antares rocket. After the CubeSats have arrived at the
station, they will be deployed into low-Earth orbit and will
begin their missions to test these new technologies useful for
predicting weather, ensuring data quality, and helping
researchers better understand storms.

News Media Contact

Alan Buis
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-0474 / 818-653-8339
alan.buis@jpl.nasa.gov

Steve Cole
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0918 / 202-657-2194
stephen.e.cole@nasa.gov

Andrea Martin, Earth Science Technology Office
Esprit Smith, JPL

2018-105

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