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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Two satellites to launch in May, observe polar regions, global weather patterns

Launch is part of mission between UW, NASA to make novel measurements in important understudied regions, better understand climate
The PREFIRE science team. Tristan L’Ecuyer/UW SSEC

In about six weeks, the Polar Radiant Energy in the Far InfraRed Experiment will launch two satellites from the north and south poles. The launch of PREFIRE Satellite-1 will occur May 1, with PREFIRE Satellite-2 to follow May 15 from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex in New Zealand, according to PREFIRE. This mission is in collaboration with NASA, the University of Wisconsin’s Space Science and Engineering Center and researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Colorado.

The PREFIRE mission has been underway since 2018, when NASA first selected PREFIRE after a proposal to better understand the understudied regions of the Arctic and Antarctic, according to NASA.

This particular launch will be using specific satellites called CubeSats, nanosatellites about the size of a shoebox, which will contain the special instruments collecting the data, according to PREFIRE. The CubeSats are cost-efficient, lightweight and compact, making them an ideal choice for this pilot, yet promising, mission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Physical Scientist and PREFIRE co-investigator Nicole-Jeanne Schlegel said.


“If you watched a NASA talk where they talked about future missions, it [using CubeSats] was on the table,” Schlegel said. “But … it’s passing tests now. I hear it coming from NASA leadership [that they’re] excited for it.”

The two CubeSats will collect data for 10 months, due to the mission’s current budget, which is the minimum timespan required for observing weather patterns in the Arctic and Antarctic during all four seasons. But PREFIRE principal investigator Tristan L’Ecuyer hopes the measurements will continue longer than this, and the CubeSats can last from three to five years in space, L’Ecuyer said.

What the team of scientists behind this mission are looking for, specifically, is the wavelength of energy emitted from the poles and where this lies on the electromagnetic spectrum, L’Ecuyer said.

This is what makes the PREFIRE mission different from past studies of the polar regions. L’Ecuyer said scientists have quantified the total radiation the poles emit but have never looked at what sort of wavelengths are emitted.

Since the PREFIRE team is working in a new area of data collection, the instruments were uniquely designed for making these novel measurements, which came with challenges of its own, L’Ecuyer said.

“The nice thing about NASA is it does a lot of things for the first time — we [PREFIRE] were one of those examples of something for the first time,” L’Ecuyer said. “But when you do that, you have to learn as you go because you can’t just follow what somebody else has already done.”

From building the instruments during the pandemic, which involved material shortages and delays, to size constraints, because they needed to fit in the small CubeSats, to finding testing equipment, since the measurements they will be making are completely new, the engineering team had its work cut out for them, L’Ecuyer said.

The team, however, persevered through these unanticipated challenges. And the new technology could even change how researchers approach future earth science missions, Schlegel said.

Now, six weeks out from the launch, the CubeSats are almost ready to enter space and start collecting data. The next step is getting the satellites to the New Zealand launch site, having just passed the mission readiness review March 7, L’Ecuyer said.

“The review basically looked at the entire mission,” L’Ecuyer said. “Everything from science to engineering to the launch and said, ‘Are you ready to actually launch?’ and the review board said, ‘Yes, you are.’”

But transportation will prove more difficult than simply shipping the CubeSats off to New Zealand. The satellites contain sensitive instruments and batteries, which need to be carefully handled, that make transportation a little more difficult, L’Ecuyer said.

Currently, the CubeSats are in anaerobic boxes in Colorado, and it’s important they remain in these conditions until the launch because oxygen can damage the parts, L’Ecuyer said. Next, they will have to make their way to California and from California to their launch destination, where they will be mounted to rockets and finally sent to space. Once the CubeSats enter their orbits, the data collection and analysis will begin at last.

“To me, getting that first data, where we for the first time see these wavelengths that we’ve never measured before, is going to be really exciting,” L’Ecuyer said. “I think that that alone will be a really big moment for me.”

Even with just the slightest bit of data collection, Schlegel said scientists can take that information and compare it to existing theory with their models, which can help them understand any new, unexpected data collected during the mission.

For example, emissivity — the amount of energy a surface emits, according to Schlegel — is one of the theories the PREFIRE team bases its models on. Scientists develop models grounded in this theory to prepare for results that might look different than when anticipated during preparation. This can be due to factors such as freshly fallen snow or snow brightness that affect emissivity, Schlegel said.

With the data the instruments will collect comes the possibility of influencing and improving current climate models. Predictive models of the Arctic and Antarctic can only simulate what’s going to happen, such as changes in sea level or temperature, but L’Ecuyer said with the PREFIRE team’s data and observations in the picture, a new climate prediction is possible.

Though the polar regions are a focus of the mission, the instruments will be collecting data from all around the world, L’Ecuyer said, including the tropics and mountains.

Even if it’s not the scientists at PREFIRE who make the new discoveries — perhaps other scholars will use PREFIRE’s data to find something — L’Ecuyer is still excited about the possibilities of all the unknown.

“There’s other things that we haven’t even really thought about yet,” L’Ecuyer said. “These new discoveries are going to come from the fact that we have new data for the first time, and I’m really excited about that.”

The mission wouldn’t be complete, of course, without the team of graduate students who are both learning and lending their knowledge alongside professional researchers, some of whom may even go on to have careers with NASA, L’Ecuyer said.

It also took a tremendous amount of collaboration between data scientists, process scientists and modelers to create a technology that could fit the mission’s very specific needs, Schlegel said.

What started as a proposal to NASA six years ago will be coming to fruition in May. Years of preparation, collaboration and persistent learning without losing sight of the end goal underlie this launch, which, L’Ecuyer said, can benefit society and the world.

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