Studying Jupiter’s atmosphere with cube satellites

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

In an effort to reduce the risks of studying the atmosphere around Jupiter, a team of researchers is preparing a fleet of miniature cube satellites that would each collect data in one specific field, according to a new International Journal Space Science and Engineering study.

Each of the probes would be outfitted with a different sensor, then fired into the clouds of the hot gas giant, the scientists behind the project explained in a statement. They would last an estimated 15 minutes and transmit roughly 20 megabits of data before burning up in the atmosphere.

Approaching the project in this way would allow scientists to get a better look at a large portion of the planet’s atmosphere, while also requiring much less heating than larger satellites. Dividing up the payload would significantly reduce the risk of such a mission as well, they added.

The use of nano-sized cube satellites was made possible through the miniaturization of cameras, electronic equipment and other technological instruments. While orbiting and fly-by probes have provided some information about the surface and atmosphere of outer planets such as Jupiter, the clouds of these worlds need to be penetrated in order to gain more detailed data.

Satellites and spacecraft that weight in excess of 650 pounds fall too slowly, reducing how much data they can transmit because the relay needs to be further away, the researchers said. The mini-probes could survive the fall for much longer, especially without a parachute, they added.

“Our concept shows that for a small enough probe, you can strip off the parachute and still get enough time in the atmosphere to take meaningful data while keeping the relay close and the data rate high,” explained study author John Moores from the of the Centre for Research in the Earth and Space Sciences (CRESS) at York University.

Moores, along with colleagues from York University and the University of Toronto, plan to use satellites that weigh less than one kilogram similar to those already in use in orbit around Earth. However, there are some limits as to how much solar power these miniature probes can collect, and they are prohibited from using plutonium-powered thermoelectric generators.

Furthermore, these micro-satellites also require substantial infrastructure to collect data signals, which led the team to suggest a tandem mission with the ESA’s JUICE orbiter, a mission which is scheduled to begin in 2030. The mission platform has been dubbed SMAll Reconnaissance of Atmospheres (SMARA) in honor of the maple tree fruit known as the samara.

The mission scientists believe that their work could help better understand the solar nebula from which the sun and all of the planets formed, as Jupiter comprises two-thirds of the total planetary mass of the solar system. Understanding the planet’s atmosphere could also help shed new light on the asteroids and other small bodies which constantly bombard the gas giant.

Furthermore, it is believed that Jupiter’s atmosphere could serve as a historical record of such impacts, providing data about the composition of the solar system. Finally, since the planet has the deepest atmosphere in the solar system, it can help experts better understand flow dynamics, cloud microphysics and radiative transfer under conditions far different than those on Earth.

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