Washington, October 2 : Researchers and students from the University of Michigan in the US will design and build a satellite about the size of a loaf of bread, which will be deployed to study space weather.
Undergraduate and graduate students will be heavily involved in this Radio Aurora Explorer (RAX) project, led by the University of Michigan (U-M) and SRI International, a California-based independent research and technology development organization.
This CubeSat, as it's called, will be the first free-flying spacecraft built in part by U-M students.
Members of the Student Space Systems Fabrication Laboratory (S3FL), which is an organization that gives students practical space systems design and fabrication experience, will play an important role.
CubeSats, developed about five years ago, are approximately four-inch cube-shaped devices that launch from inside a P-Pod, a special rocket attachment that was developed by California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University.
There is a growing interest in CubeSats as they offer relatively inexpensive and simpler access to space.
The RAX satellite will essentially be made of three CubeSats.
The RAX will measure the energy flow in the ionosphere, the highest part of Earth's atmosphere where solar radiation turns regular atoms into charged particles.
Disturbances in the ionosphere can affect earth-to-space communications such as GPS signals, digital satellite television and voice and data transmission systems including Iridium and Globalstar.
"This project will help us better understand space weather processes, how the Earth and Sun interact, and how this weather produces noise in space communication signals - noise that translates to lower quality telecommunications capabilities and error in GPS signals," said James Cutler, assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and a principal investigator on the project.
The RAX satellite will act as a receiver that will pick up signals from a ground radar transmitter. These radar pulses will reflect off disturbances, or space weather phenomena, in the ionosphere.
RAX is scheduled for launch in December 2009.
RAX is scheduled to be the first in a series of CubeSat missions funded by the NSF (National Science Foundation) to study space weather phenomenon.