Working to Identify and Address Key Questions in Solar Flares and Activity

LASP will have two cubesats, MinXSS and CSIM, that will be measuring wavelengths from the sun to advance space weather research and climate change studies.

The Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) has been around before NASA — since 1948, and is the world’s only research institute to have sent instruments to all eight planets and Pluto. The significance of LASP’s contributions cannot be overstated — they have contributed long-term data records, going back decades, on climate activity that can be used to measure changes to our environment.

For their research goals, it is critical that they have an uninterrupted stream of satellite data — they need to always have satellites on orbit, and must replace older ones as the instruments degrade in the absolute harshest of conditions, staring at the sun. The next two LASP satellites going up on Spaceflight’s SSO-A dedicated rideshare mission aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 will overlap with some older satellites so there is no gap in data. It will be a significant upgrade and technology test of the capabilities of smallsats for the LASP objectives.

CSIM (Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor)

The first of the LASP payloads is the CSIM cubesat. It will be measuring the wavelengths from the sun from the near-ultraviolet to the near infrared – a wavelength range encompassing 96% of the total output of the sun. It’s a 6U cubesat that will measure solar spectral irradiance (SSI) to understand how solar variability impacts the Earth’s climate and to validate climate model sensitivities.

The real excitement about this mission is the ability to test the efficacy of a cubesat doing the measurements of a much bigger and more expensive satellite. In the past, these missions have been done with much bigger satellites that are on orbit for 15 or more years — but those are expensive and even the best instruments onboard are only designed for five years of use. This mission is going to be an ideal test run — the data CSIM brings back will be compared to data from a bigger satellite launched just last December, with the performance measured directly against those instruments making the same measurements. Both instruments were calibrated at the same facility, so the fidelity between the two should be high.

“CSIM is the first generation of satellites to demonstrate a more affordable and potentially sustainable approach,” says Erik Richard, Research Scientist at LASP. “Instead of 15 year missions, we could have many smaller missions, maybe 2-3 years each, at much lower cost, and can better assure no gaps in our data collection. We can mitigate risk to the research by sending multiple cubesats up that fulfill the measurement requirements of longer missions.”

MinXSS (Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer)

The second payload from LASP is the MinXSS, a 3U cubesat that will measure solar radiation changes during solar flares — the short wavelengths from the sun. This is the second MinXSS satellite going up. The first was a short mission, aboard the International Space Station in 2015, lasting nearly one year of science operations, it burned up in Earth’s atmosphere as expected on May 6, 2017. More than 40 University of Colorado Boulder students worked on this project with professional mentors and contributions from the Aerospace Engineering Sciences professors and LASP engineers.

“We’re excited for this mission,” said Tom Woods, Associate Director at LASP. “Since SSO-A will go to sun synchronous orbit and at higher altitude, the mission will last longer. The satellite instrument will have better spectral resolution that the previous MinXSS. We designed it and shielded it for a 5 year mission, and hope to get great results over that period of time.”

Going Rideshare

Because LASP’s work is dependent on consistent data flowing from constant satellite monitoring, access to frequent launches is a must. The ability to be able to launch at the fraction of the cost of a large primary payload helps LASP maximize its investment in research, and also plan for redundancy in case one satellite fails. “It’s great that Spaceflight is creating opportunities for these small payloads to fly. It’s a huge boost to the smallsat industry and especially universities,” says Tom Woods.

They also appreciate having a dedicated mission manager at Spaceflight who can take care of all the documentation and regulatory compliance, so they can focus on their research. Their mission manager has made sure everything was in order, including making sure all testing was complete and making sure that the new dispenser they were using was compatible with this mission.

“Working with Marcy has been key to making our mission a complete success,” says Woods. “She has helped organize and edit our required launch documents. We couldn’t have done it all without her.”

The Future of Research

Launching cubesats on a dedicated rideshare gives LASP a new way to demonstrate their new technology in a low cost, low risk way. This could be the future of climate change monitoring and solar activity research. If these missions demonstrate that the monitoring can be done with much smaller satellites, with comparable accuracy, it will be a whole new era for LASP. Rideshare reduces the cost and opens up flexibility for scheduling that hasn’t been an option previously. Launching large scale payloads on government launches is expensive and often constrained by requirements of using proven tech methods. MinXSS and CSIM will demonstrate new technology, such as using carbon nanotubes in detectors, in a way that will pave the way for even better data for all missions for LASP and other organizations on the forefront of research.

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