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New cereal box-sized satellite to explore alien planets

New cereal box-sized satellite to explore alien planets
Artist’s depiction of the planet KELT-9b. Credit score: LASP; NASA/JPL-Caltech

A brand new miniature satellite tv for pc designed and constructed at CU Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Area Physics (LASP) is offering proof that “cute” issues can tackle massive scientific challenges.

The Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (CUTE) is slated to launch into area Sept. 27. The roughly $4 million spacecraft, a smaller-than-usual sort of satellite tv for pc generally known as a “CubeSat,” is about as giant as a “family-sized field of Cheerios,” stated LASP researcher Kevin France, principal investigator for the mission.

However it has mighty targets: Over the course of about 7 months, the mission will observe the risky physics round a category of extraordinarily sizzling planets orbiting stars far-off from Earth. It is the primary CubeSat mission funded by NASA to look at these distant worlds—marking a significant check of what small spacecraft could also be able to.

“It is an experiment that NASA is conducting to see how a lot science might be carried out with a small satellite tv for pc,” stated France, professor within the Division of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. “That is thrilling but additionally slightly daunting.”

The mission will blast off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket alongside the Landsat 9 satellite tv for pc from Vandenberg Area Drive Base in Lompoc, California.

As soon as CUTE enters into orbit round Earth, it can set its sights on a set of exoplanets referred to as “sizzling Jupiters.” As their names recommend, these gaseous planets are each giant and scalding sizzling, reaching temperatures of 1000’s of levels Fahrenheit. The satellite tv for pc’s findings will assist scientists to higher perceive how these planets, and plenty of others, evolve and even shrink over billions of years.

Lately, LASP has led the event of a number of CubeSat missions to discover all the pieces from the solar’s exercise to supernovae in distant galaxies. Not like bigger area missions, which frequently web a price ticket within the tons of of thousands and thousands of {dollars}, engineers can produce CubeSats on a budget.

New cereal box-sized satellite to explore alien planets
A workforce installs CUTE into its launch system. Credit score: Kevin France; NASA/WFF

“As little as a decade in the past, many within the area group expressed the opinion that CubeSat missions have been little greater than ‘toys,'” stated LASP Director Daniel Baker. “There was recognition that small spacecraft might be helpful as educating and coaching instruments, however there was widespread skepticism that forefront science might be carried out with such small platforms. I’m delighted that LASP and the College of Colorado have led the way in which in demonstrating that exceptional science might be carried out with small packages. CUTE and different CU CubeSat missions are altering the panorama for fundamental analysis.”

Scorching planets

CUTE, specifically, tackles a sizzling subject in astrophysics.

Sizzling Jupiters, and their much more chaotic cousins ultra-hot Jupiters, are an particularly inhospitable class of gaseous worlds. Take KELT-9b: This planet, which sits in a stellar system about 670 mild years from our personal, has a mass almost 3 times bigger than Jupiter’s. However KELT-9b additionally orbits a lot nearer to its residence star—so shut that temperatures on the planet hit a mind-boggling 7,800 levels Fahrenheit.

“As a result of these planets are parked so near their mum or dad stars, they obtain an amazing quantity of radiation,” France stated.

That radiation takes a toll on a planet over time. At these temperatures, the atmospheres of sizzling Jupiters start to develop like a pufferfish and should even tear away and escape into area.

Which is the place CUTE is available in: All through its mission, the spacecraft will measure how briskly gases are escaping from a minimal of 10 sizzling Jupiters, together with KELT-9b. It can obtain this feat utilizing its distinctive, rectangular telescope design, which was pioneered at LASP.

New cereal box-sized satellite to explore alien planets
Rick Kohnert, methods engineer for CUTE, and Arika Egan pose with the small satellite tv for pc at LASP. Credit score: Kevin France; NASA/WFF

“In the end CUTE has one main goal, and that’s to review the inflated atmospheres of those actually sizzling, fairly gassy exoplanets,” stated Arika Egan, a graduate scholar at LASP who has helped to develop the mission. “The inflation and escape these exoplanetary atmospheres endure are on scales simply not seen in our personal photo voltaic system.”

France added that the workforce’s findings could inform scientists lots not nearly sizzling Jupiters however concerning the full vary of planets that exist within the galaxy. That features small and rocky worlds like Earth and its shut neighbors. (Mars, for instance, additionally misplaced a lot of its environment over almost 3 billion years, making the planet uninhabitable for people).

“The extra locations we perceive atmospheric escape, the higher we perceive atmospheric escape as a complete,” France stated. “We will then apply these findings to various kinds of planets.”

Bon voyage

He famous that CUTE is well-suited for probing the atmospheres of alien worlds. Not like bigger area missions, such because the Hubble Area Telescope, this satellite tv for pc solely has one job to do: To scan as many sizzling Jupiters as it could throughout its quick lifespan.

France stated that, after spending 4 years growing CUTE in Boulder, he and his workforce are feeling bittersweet concerning the mission’s upcoming launch. Egan, for her half, is keen for the little craft to make a small dent in questions on Earth’s place within the galaxy.

“If you search for on the sky and see 1000’s of stars, that’s existential by itself,” she stated. “However then you concentrate on the planets we have found round these stars, 1000’s of planets. We have simply barely scratched the floor of characterizing them, of understanding their range. How little we all know is astounding, and becoming a member of the hassle to be taught extra is fulfilling.”


New mission would provide a road map in the search for alien atmospheres


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