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Summer 2012
In this Issue of Spheres

Seeing the Forest
for the Trees

Tightening the Scientific
Understanding of the Belts

Big Science in a
Pintsize Package

Rock of Ages

Geospatial Science Gets
a Space of its own

News and Notes
Faculty, Staff, and Student News
From the Director

Institute for the Study of Earth,
Oceans, and Space
EOS Director: Harlan Spence
Editor: David Sims
Designer: Kristi Donahue
Circulation: Laurie Pinciak

Morse Hall, 8 College Road,
Durham, NH 03824


"We care about this because the belts' high-energy particles, particularly the electrons, pose a real risk to spacecraft."

“A lot of my thesis work has been trying to understand what the scale of these microbursts is, where they’re occurring, how large they are, and how they vary.”

Summer 2012

Big Science in a Pintsize Package
A small satellite program provides big opportunities for graduate students

YOU WOULD BE FORGIVEN for mistaking a satellite named Focused Investigations of Relativistic Electron Burst Intensity, Range, and Dynamics, or FIREBIRD, for one of those boxy little napkin dispensers in the corner booth at your local diner.

alex crew 
Alex Crew holds FIREBIRD's full-size engineering unit, which contains twin particle detectors. The boxy structure to Crew's left is a copy of the miniscule FIREBIRD spacecraft.
Photo by David Sims, UNH-EOS.  

But despite its 4x4x6-inch dimensions, Alex Crew is hoping FIREBIRD will prove to be The Little Satellite That Could when it is launched into orbit 400 miles above Earth to probe a mysterious physical process within our planet's dangerous radiation belts.

Crew, a Ph.D. candidate in the Space Science Center, has spent the past three years working on FIREBIRD–a mission under the National Science Foundation's "CubeSat" program. CubeSat is launching a new generation of pintsized satellites outfitted with modern, smart-phone-like electronics and tiny scientific instruments to, in effect, boldly go where bigger, more costly and complex satellite missions cannot.

Recently, Crew presented a poster on FIREBIRD at an NSF workshop in Arlington, VA. He joined CubeSat project scientists, engineers, educators, and students from around the country to explore how CubeSat projects can enable scientific discoveries and engineering innovation and play a major role in helping solve critical societal problems related to, for example, climate change and space weather.

Space weather, which is FIREBIRD's realm of investigation, generally refers to conditions on the Sun, in the solar wind, and within Earth's magnetic field (magnetosphere) and upper atmosphere that can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems as well as pose risks to orbiting satellites, astronauts and people onboard aircraft in polar regions.

Slated for launch in 2013, FIREBIRD is actually two identical satellites that will hitch a ride into space on a rocket dedicated to a larger mission–standard operating procedure for the CubeSat program. The little satellites are placed into a compartment known as a Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer, P-POD for short, and jettisoned from the rocket at the proper orbital height above Earth.

That process, known as microbursts, involves electrons moving at nearly the speed of light during short-duration (100 milliseconds) events. Microbursts are thought to be one of the primary mechanisms by which the outer radiation belt loses energetic particles to Earth's atmosphere after the occurrence of powerful solar storms. Such storms can dramatically change the intensity of the radiation belts.

Says Crew, "We care about this because the belts' high-energy particles, particularly the electrons, pose a real risk to spacecraft. So if we understand these physical processes better we'll be able to predict how the radiation belts will behave and both protect the satellites we depend upon for telecommunications, weather monitoring and prediction, etcetera, and design them to withstand this high-energy radiation."

As part of his thesis work, Crew's primary role for the mission has been designing and implementing the science operations plan. In other words, he's had to figure out just how FIREBIRD needs to make the microburst measurements in order to accomplish the mission's goals within the big constraints imposed by the little CubeSat platform. CubeSat satellites are placed in orbit for just under $1 million, a mere budget blip compared to typical satellite missions.

California Polytechnic State and Stanford universities first developed the CubeSat specifications to help universities worldwide perform space science and exploration, and NSF's program is providing graduate students with the opportunity to participate as never before in satellite missions end-to-end.

Pictured are three different models of individual FIREBIRD spacecraft
along with the command and data handling units for each.

Photo courtesy of the Space Science and Engineering Laboratory, Montana State University. 

Synergistic science

The phenomenon of microbursts was discovered in the 1960s when a balloon mission carrying x-ray detectors picked up huge spikes in x-ray counts on timescales of 100-milliseconds. Scientists had no idea what they were but noted they occurred in a region of space "that mapped to having originated in the radiation belts in all likelihood," Crew says.

In fact, the x-rays occurred when the high-energy electrons from the radiation belts hit Earth's upper atmosphere and suddenly lost all their energy–a process known in German as "Bremsstrahlung" for "braking radiation." They were deemed microbursts but to this day remain poorly understood.

"A lot of my thesis work has been trying to understand what the scale of these microbursts is, where they're occurring, how large they are, and how they vary," says Crew.

To that end, the simultaneous measurements made by the two detectors onboard each tiny spacecraft should provide the very first characterization of the spatial scale of microbursts. What's more, greatly expanding the science, there will be other, simultaneous measurements being made in the radiation belt environment by separate missions occurring in tandem with FIREBIRD.

Crew's advisor and UNH mission lead scientist for FIREBIRD is astrophysicist Harlan Spence, director of EOS. Spence is also the UNH principal investigator for NASA's ambitious Radiation Belt Storm Probe (RBSP) mission set for launch this August 23 from Cape Kennedy (see "Tightening the Scientific Understanding of the Belts" in this issue of Spheres).

It is hoped that RBSP, FIREBIRD, and a balloon mission known as the Balloon Array for Radiation-belt Relativistic Electron Losses, or BARREL, will eventually make independent, simultaneous measurements of the complex radiation belt environment as never before.

"There will be a lot of synergy and complementary measurements with the three missions," Crew notes. RBSP will provide measurements of the radiation belts themselves and, in particular, very good measurements of the electromagnetic waves known as chorus waves that likely generate microbursts.


"FIREBIRD will be very nicely positioned to measure the bursts themselves because of our lower altitude," says Crew. "Ideally, with the missions all lined up, we'll see the burst starting out through the chorus waves with RBSP, then FIREBIRD seeing the electrons coming down, and then BARREL will get the large-scale picture of where they are occurring." He adds, "If we're were able to do this, it would remove one of the key problems with single-point satellite measurements, which is, what's the difference between something that varies in space and something that varies in time?"

Spence is the lead scientist on one of four instruments suites on the RBSP mission–the Energetic Particle, Composition, and Thermal Plasma (ECT) Suite. He notes that the RBSP mission, with its comprehensive measurements and science goals, took over twelve years from concept to launch and, thus, FIREBIRD has provided Crew with opportunities that would have otherwise been impossible.

"RBSP had its roots in NASA planning documents from 1999. At that time, Alex was just barely out of elementary school." Spence says. "In contrast, the CubeSat program provides invaluable opportunities for scholars such as Alex to experience a complete spacecraft mission and to conduct high-quality scientific research as a graduate student. Driven by a focused science topic central to his Ph.D. research, that is, microbursts, Alex has contributed significantly to all aspects of the mission."

Collaborators on FIREBIRD include Montana State University, the Aerospace Corporation, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

by David Sims, Science Writer, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space.