2 tiny space weather satellites deployed from space station

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded the X1.2 solar flare on Jan. 5, 2023, at 7:45 p.m. EST (0045 GMT on Jan. 6).
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded the X1.2 solar flare on Jan. 5, 2023, at 7:45 p.m. EST (0045 GMT on Jan. 6). (Image credit: NASA/SDO/Helioviewer.org)

Two small satellites are now on a mission to study how space weather affects communication signals.

The cubesats — the Plasma Enhancements in the Ionosphere-Thermosphere Satellite (petitSat) and the Scintillation Prediction Observations Research Task (SPORT) — were released from the International Space Station (ISS) on Dec. 29, 2022, at 8:55 a.m. EST (1355 GMT), a month after arriving at the ISS as part of SpaceX's 26th commercial resupply mission for NASA.

The satellites will focus on the ionosphere, the region of Earth's atmosphere that extends from 30 to 600 miles (50 to 1,000 kilometers) above the planet's surface.

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The ionosphere gets its name from the fact that atoms and molecules in this region of the atmosphere are bombarded by solar radiation that causes them to ionize, or split into protons and electrons. It is also in this region, where the ISS orbits and radio and GPS signals pass through, that space weather most heavily affects our technology.

Fluctuations in the ionosphere result in higher- and lower-density areas of ions, creating "bubbles" and "blobs" that can scatter radio signals, sometimes sending them crashing into each other in a phenomenon called scintillation. The result is noisy radio signals, which can reduce the reliability of communication and navigation systems and even block signals, according to a NASA statement about the mission.

"If you put a pencil into a glass of water that's half full, the pencil appears broken," Linda Habash Krause, the project scientist for SPORT at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said in the statement. "What happens when you have bubbles? Similar to the pencil in the water, the signals go through ample bends."

How these disruptive features form is not well understood. SPORT carries six instruments for measuring the ionosphere to help determine the conditions just before the formation of the plasma bubbles. The satellite will then transmit data back to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research, which will then pass on the data to researchers at NASA and other U.S. partners. 

Meanwhile, petitSat will work to determine what triggers plasma blobs, when they appear and how large a region they occupy.

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI (opens in new tab).