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When NASA launched a new weather satellite into orbit early Friday morning, two tiny satellites designed and built in Utah were tagging along for the ride.
The purpose of the DICE satellites is to better understand a space phenomenon that occasionally causes significant disruptions on Earth: geomagnetic storms.
The DICE satellites, known as "nanosatellites", are smaller than a toaster. They were put together by students at Utah State University and launched from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on a Delta rocket that also carried NASA's satellite, known as the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System.
Engineers at USU's Space Dynamics Laboratory assisted students who worked on the DICE satellites. "When they go looking for jobs," said Prof. Scott Hinton, Dean of USU's College of Engineering, "to be able to say that they helped design and build a nanosatellite, boy that makes a big difference to a lot of these aerospace companies."
It's an example of a U.S.U. student effort that goes way beyond a school science project into the realm of important space issues. The goal is to learn more about solar disturbances hitting Earth that disrupt everything from communication satellites to airline navigation to GPS systems. The geomagnetic storms are triggered in the upper atmosphere whenever the Sun gets a little bit rowdy.
"Things coming off of the Sun, solar flares and things like that, send off energy, in frequency waves," said Josh Martineau, a graduate student in USU's College of Engineering.
The USU satellites are a modern equivalent of Ben Franklin sending up a kite into a thunderstorm. When geomagnetic storms erupt in the outer atmosphere the DICE satellites will measure magnetic fields and ion densities. It may help explain disruptions why the storms sometimes disrupt electronic systems.
"For example," Martineau said, "the navigational systems used in our aircraft are greatly affected by the magnetic storms. Some of the larger magnetic storms can even affect electrical grids on the ground."
Beyond that practical concern, the compact satellites could shed light on greater mysteries. "Part of that ionosphere is actually being leaked out into space," Hinton said. "We need to understand what's going on."
"For instance," Martineau said, "Mars used to have an atmosphere and they're wondering if these solar storms are having an effect as to why it doesn't have an atmosphere now."
Earthlings probably don't need to worry too much about that last point. If the Earth is losing its atmosphere, it's a very slow process stretching over eons of time.
As for disruptions of electronics, the hope is that if scientists better understand when and why the solar storms interfere, they may be able to design more effective countermeasures.