ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
ECE News

Virginia Tech team to launch nanosatellite

Into thin air

Read more about Earle's research in the 2012 Annual Report.

Space@VT moves into new quarters

Space@VT researchers have consolidated their facilities in a new building.

Virginia Tech researchers will be launching a new satellite that will be the first to specifically study gravity waves traveling between the lower atmosphere and ionosphere. ECE professor Greg Earle and his team will be working with researchers from the University of Illinois to build a nanosatellite that NASA will launch in late 2015 or early 2016.

The project has been selected for funding by the NSF, and has received support from VPT and ICTAS, and the Virginia Space Grant Consortium. NASA has agreed to fund the launch.

A nanonsatellite being built

This will be a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite that will help us understand “how waves generated by weather systems in the lower atmosphere propagate and deliver energy and momentum into the mesosphere, lower thermosphere, and ionosphere (MLTI),” Earle explains. “Our experiment will be the first global satellite investigation to focus entirely on these waves, which may be responsible for plasma instabilities that disrupt radio propagation.”

Most energy moves downward through the atmosphere along magnetic field lines, but at middle and low latitudes energy is sometimes transferred upward. Studies of the ionosphere “cite gravity waves as the mechanism by which energy is transferred from low to high altitudes,” says Earle, “yet we have little understanding of this process in a global, systemic sense.”

Gathering precise data about these waves requires in-situ measurements, which have been hard to get because satellites that operate at the necessary low altitudes have lifespans too short to be cost-effective. With the smaller, cheaper CubeSats this is no longer a problem. According to Earle, the Virginia Tech CubeSat is about the size of a shoebox.

The new satellite will measure perturbations caused by these waves in both neutral and ion densities in the ionosphere, while onboard photometers will measure the wavelengths and amplitudes of the wave fields in the upper mesosphere. Using meteorological data along with the satellite’s data, the team hopes to discover the connections between terrestrial storms and the MLTI system.