Australian scientists are taking part in a global research initiative to study the Earth's thermosphere.
It's not quite where no one has gone before, but Australian researchers are joining in an effort to boldly go there nonetheless - into the rather nebulous region of the Earth's atmosphere known as the thermosphere. In December this year, three Australian built 'cubesats' will join 37 other satellites in an Orbital ATK Antares rocket launched to the International Space Station - from there, they'll be released to descend into thermosphere, between 200 and 380km above the planet.
“This region is poorly understood and hard to measure,” said Andrew Dempster, Director of Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at UNSW - where two of the cubesats were built. “And yet, it’s the interface between our planet and space. It’s where much of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the Sun collides with the Earth, and generates auroras and potential hazards that can affect power grids, communications and GPS receivers.”
“This is the most extensive exploration of the lower thermosphere ever, collecting measurements in the kind of detail never before tried,” said Elias Aboutanios, project leader of UNSW-Ec0 and a senior lecturer at UNSW. “The satellites will operate for 3-9 months – and may last up to a year – orbiting this little-studied region of space, before their orbits decay and they re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.”
The three satellites include ACSER's UNSW-Ec0 - which will be studying the atomic composition of the thermosphere - INSPIRE-2 - measuring the electron temperature and plasma density of the region - and SUSat.
There's a range of other instruments on each 2kg satellite, from testing computer chips to GPS receivers to see how signals reflect back from the Earth's surface. Additionally, the chassis' of UNSW-Ec0 has been 3d-printed from thermoplastic - itself an experiment in seeing how such materials respond to usage in satellite designs.