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Making Rocket Science a Little Easier

Cheap, small and smart, cube satellites take off

Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration James Provost

Over the past few years, the big idea in space technology has actually been very small—about the size of a half-gallon milk carton, in fact. It’s called a cube satellite, an inexpensive research probe that piggybacks into orbit on NASA or commercial space flights, allowing for a greater variety of avant-garde projects by smaller research groups. Several cubesats are already circling the earth; one of the latest crop, a probe named Firefly built by NASA scientist Doug Rowland and Siena College’s Allan Weatherwax, will head up next summer to study the potential link between lightning and atmospheric radiation (a.k.a. terrestrial gamma rays). Here’s how they’ll do it.

1. Firefly has optical detectors and radio emissions receivers to find lightning, a gamma ray detector to find radiation, solar cells for power, an onboard computer to do calculations, a GPS unit and a radio transmitter to send data home. The two scientists and their students—with the help of an in-house engineer—built small versions of all of these themselves.

2. Before taking flight, Firefly will undergo vibration testing at NASA to ensure it won’t disintegrate or cause problems during the launch. “Since we’re not the primary payload, we can’t interfere with anything else,” says Weatherwax. “They don’t mind taking us up, but they don’t want the satellite to fall apart, blow up or mess up some $500 million Time Warner satellite that’s going up too.”

3. Finally, Rowland and Weatherwax have to find a suitable host rocket. “We would like to go over the equatorial region, where there’s a lot of lightning, so we’ll give certain parameters, like our altitude and what latitudes we want to cover. Then the National Science Foundation works with the Navy or other agencies to get us a ride,” says Weatherwax. “Basically, we go in the trunk.”

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