A little satellite named after the mythological Norse god of the dawn will be sent into orbit this month to collect data on Earth's atmosphere.
The nanosatellite, known as Dellingr, is about the size of a table picture frame, and will carry six instruments, one of which is smaller than a fingernail.
Small-satellite missions can be challenging to conduct: A mission with a similarly loaded cubesat, or miniature spacecraft, was aborted in 2016 just six months after it launched. That's because the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer Instrument on board the spacecraft — which researchers use to examine how solar radiation is acting upon Earth's atmosphere — was not communicating to mission operators properly, thereby causing a delay in making the instrument function. However, the new satellite's developers are confident that all six instruments on board Dellingr will deliver good results because several tests were successful in suborbital demonstrations, NASA officials said in the statement. [CubeSats: Tiny, Versatile Spacecraft Explained (Infographic)]
Dellingr's team includes scientists and engineers from the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the center's Applied Engineering and Technology Directorate. Scientists with the mission hope to prove that the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer instrument, which previously failed, can be functional. They also want to show that this cubesat model is more reliable than other prototypes, and encourage future use of relatively inexpensive spacecraft like Dellingr. Currently, the price tag for producing a cubesat is roughly $30,000.
The building blocks of cubesats are "units" that are 4 inches (10 centimeters) on a side. The Dellingr cubesat is a 6U, which means it's the size of six of these units put together. The cubesat will have six instruments for measuring unique phenomena, such as the expansion and contraction of the Earth's outer atmosphere caused by the sun when its activity levels increase and decrease. In addition to being inexpensive, a tiny platform like this one can be sent into orbit with other nanosatellites to gather simultaneous observations from multiple points, which more conventional spacecraft cannot gather because they are too large, NASA officials said.
According to NASA, the data collected by Dellingr will include information on how the sun influences the Earth's upper atmosphere, also known as the Ionosphere. This atmospheric layer can affect the transmission of radio waves, especially when it expands or contracts due to the sun's 11-year cycle of change. The ionosphere holds atoms or molecules that carry positive or negative charge because of solar and cosmic radiation that interacts with them. And as the sun enters solar minimum — a low-activity period that happens every 11 years— the ionosphere expands.
The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer will have the chance to redeem itself from its defectiveness last year by sampling the densities of ionized and neutral atoms in this atmospheric region when Dellingr launches on its maiden journey this month.
Editor's Note: This story was corrected at 8:15 p.m. EDT to clarify that "6U" refers to a cubesat's size, not the number of instruments it carries.