NASA will launch two identical miniature satellites next week to understand how the Earth's atmosphere clouds the radio signals we rely on for communication and navigation.
The pair will be among the 24 satellites flying into space for the third time with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket. The start date for is set to June 24 after some delays. The two identical spaceships are Cubesat's miniature satellites, originally used only in near-Earth orbits, but today are sometimes used for interplanetary missions.
These twin satellites, named E-TBEx, short for Enhanced Tandem Beacon Experiment, remain near the house. When orbiting near the Earth, they provide the scientists with important information on how radio signals can be interrupted as they traverse the upper atmosphere of the planet.
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The Earth's ionosphere, a layer in the upper atmosphere created by solar and cosmic rays is bombarded and therefore full of charged particles, contains "structured bubbles". These bubbles can distort radio signals that interfere with military and aviation communication as well as GPS signals, NASA said in a statement in particular, over the equator.
If we learn more about these bubbles, NASA says we can avoid the signal problems they cause. However, scientists currently do not know when bubbles will form or how they will change over time. "It's difficult to inspect these bubbles from the ground," said Rick Doe, payload program manager for the E-TBEx mission, in the statement. "When you see bubbles begin to form, they move."
NASA hopes the E-TBEx satellites will be able to study the development of bubbles before they begin to distort radio waves, Doe said. That would help the scientists to better understand the underlying physics of the bubbles.
Scientists already know that this physics has something to do with the ionized particles in this layer of Earth's atmosphere. Particles in the ionosphere are split into a "sea of positive and negative particles called plasma ," according to the NASA statement. The plasma is mixed with neutral gases, like the air we breathe.
The complex recipe means that the Earth's upper atmosphere and bubbles form It responds to various factors, including electric and magnetic fields and both terrestrial as well as space weather . Scientists believe that pressure waves from large storm systems can enter the ionosphere and create winds that can affect the motion and shape of the bubbles. The charged particles of the plasma would also be affected by Space Weather which can affect electric and magnetic fields.
According to NASA, the two E-TBEx satellites transmit radio signals at three frequencies that are close to those of the communications and GPS satellites . These signals are sent to ground receiving stations so that scientists can detect tiny changes in the phase or amplitude of the signals. The scientists will then be able to trace the disturbances to the region of the ionosphere through which they have passed.
"All signals are generated at the same time ̵
The two satellites aboard Falcon Heavy are joined by similar beacons aboard NOAA's six COSMIC-2 satellites . A combination of measurements from all eight satellites allows scientists to study the distortions from multiple angles simultaneously.
Scientists hope that the project will help them develop strategies to avoid signal distortion. For example, NASA said airlines might be able to choose a radio frequency for communications less susceptible to bladder interference, or the military could postpone an important operation until a disruptive ionospheric bubble is over.
Visit Space.com on June 24 for full coverage of the launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and payloads on board.