Launch of Cubesats to study the Earth’s magnetosphere and exoplanets with Landsat 9


On Monday, September 27, two cubesats designed to study the Earth’s magnetic field and search for exoplanets around nearby stars went into space with NASA’s new Landsat 9 Earth observation mission.

The two small satellites called CuPID (for Cusp Plasma Imaging Detector) and CUTE (for Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment), carpooled with the 3-ton Landsat 9 in space, taking advantage of the excess space available at the top of an Atlas rocket. V provided by United Launch Alliance. This arrangement makes access to space relatively inexpensive for cubesats, as Landsat 9 was already reserved on the rocket and there was sufficient fuel for additional passengers.

CuPID is the first spacecraft ever equipped with a wide-field-of-view flexible x-ray camera designed to detect low-energy x-rays. These x-rays are generated during a phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection, which occurs when two magnetic fields, such as that of the Earth and the sun, meet.

Related: NASA observes strange ‘bump’ in Earth’s magnetic field splits in two

This regularly happens when the solar wind (charged particles from the Earth’s sun) collides with the Earth’s magnetosphere (the planet’s protective magnetic field). The interaction sometimes triggers colored auroras as molecules high in the atmosphere are “excited” when they mix with the solar wind.

Sometimes energy from the sun can burst through the planet’s magnetic shield upon reconnection, damaging power grids and putting astronauts and orbiting satellites at risk of radiation damage.

“There are two big questions we have about magnetic reconnection to the Earth’s magnetosphere that we hope CuPID will address,” said Brian Walsh, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Boston University and principal investigator at CuPID. in a NASA statement. “The first is: is the energy flowing into a large continuous region, or many small patches? The other is: does it happen all the time? Or does it occur in bursts? “

CuPID has a wide field of view to get a “big picture” of how the solar wind and the magnetosphere interact. It also has a long history of development at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland, resulting from tests on suborbital rocket flights that have each spent a few minutes in space.

The CUTE mission looks in the opposite direction, into the distant universe, to find exoplanets “in transit” or passing through their mother stars. Its goal is to learn more about the atmospheres of other worlds and to understand how these atmospheres can evaporate, which could provide valuable context for similar processes that may occur on Mars.

“We don’t see extreme atmospheric mass loss on planets in our solar system today, so extrasolar planets can serve as a laboratory to study these conditions,” said Kevin France, CUTE principal investigator and exoplanet researcher. at the University of Colorado. the same statement.

CUTE will focus on the extrasolar planets called hot Jupiters, which are much larger than Mars and orbit very close to their mother stars. Atmospheric loss is much more abundant for hot Jupiters than for the red planet. CUTE will keep tabs on at least 10 huge exoplanets as they transit through their mother stars, with plans to capture five to 10 transits for each exoplanet.

The small satellite will observe how the ultraviolet light from each star changes during transits, when hot Jupiter blocks a small portion of the star when viewed from Earth orbit. Atmospheric elements such as magnesium and iron absorb this light wavelength, providing a distinctive pattern that betrays their presence. CUTE will measure the changes in these atmospheric elements over time.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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