February 19, 2016 – A project led by Atmospheric & Space Technology Research Associates (ASTRA) of Boulder, Colorado, is one of twenty small satellite missions NASA has selected to fly as auxiliary payloads aboard rockets planned to launch in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The satellite, called Scintillation Observations and Response of The Ionosphere to Electrodynamics (SORTIE) will study the ionospheric F-region.
The SORTIE spacecraft is designed to study the wave-like plasma perturbations in the ionosphere. These perturbations, called ionospheric scintillation, have been studied extensively, but are difficult to predict or model on a large scale. The waves can be caused by a wide range of phenomena, but occur predominantly in the F-layer of the ionosphere at altitudes between 200 and 1000km.
Ionospheric scintillation affects radio signals, including satellite communication and GPS, especially during active geomagnetic conditions. The goal of the mission is to generate inputs for ionospheric models that will provide improved warnings of when HF communications and GPS signals might be degraded or unavailable.
The SORTIE mission features a 6U satellite, which stands for 6 units. A 1-unit CubeSat measures 10×10×10. 6U CubeSats are approximately 10x20x30 cm. This larger size allows for more complex payloads and data collection. SORTIE will weigh just 5kg.
SORTIE’s scientific payload is composed of two instruments: an ion velocity meter to measure the direction of ionospheric flows and a micro planar langmuir probe to measure ionospheric densities. The CubeSat’s components are a command and data-handling unit (the brain of the satellite), a UHF radio, the power subsystem, including batteries to store energy and solar panels to gather energy from the sun, and an attitude determination and control system to keep the satellite aligned properly after it is launched from the spacecraft.
The mission is being funded by a NASA Heliophysics Technology and Instrument Development (H-TIDeS) program grant. The project is led by Atmospheric and Space Technology Research Associates (ASTRA) from Boulder, Colorado. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the University of Texas-Dallas will be providing the two main scientific instruments for the satellite. University of New Mexico’s COSMIAC will integrate the satellite and collect the data from it.
The SORTIE mission was selected to launch as part of the seventh round of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. NASA selected 20 small satellites from 12 states to fly as auxiliary payloads aboard rockets planned to launch in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Launch opportunities will be available via existing launch services of government payloads, as well as dedicated CubeSat launches from the newly selected Venture Class Launch Services contracts. The proposed CubeSats come from educational institutions, universities, non-profit organizations and NASA field centers.
The selected spacecraft are eligible for placement on a launch manifest after final negotiations, depending on the availability of a flight opportunity.
To date, the CubeSat Launch Initiative has selected 125 CubeSats from 32 states and has launched 43 CubeSats as part of the agency’s Launch Services Program’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) Missions. This past year, five separate ELaNa missions ferried thirteen CubeSats to orbit, including the first CubeSat from the state of Alaska, the first CubeSat built by a tribal college, Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, and the first CubeSat built by an elementary school, St. Thomas More Cathedral School of Arlington, Virginia.