A Hitchhiker’s Ride to Space

This month, we are set to launch the latest weather satellite from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Joint Polar Satellite System-1, or JPSS-1, satellite will provide essential data for timely and accurate weather forecasts and for tracking environmental events such as forest fires and droughts.


Image Credit: Ball Aerospace

JPSS-1 is the primary satellite launching, but four tiny satellites will also be hitchhiking a ride into Earth orbit. These shoebox-sized satellites (part of our CubeSat Launch Initiative) were developed in partnership with university students and used for education, research and development. Here are 4 reasons why MiRaTA, one of the hitchhikers, is particularly interesting…


Miniaturized Weather Satellite Technology

The Microwave Radiometer Technology Acceleration (MiRaTA) CubeSat is set to orbit the Earth to prove that a small satellite can advance the technology necessary to reduce the cost and size of future weather satellites. At less than 10 pounds, these nanosatellites are faster and more cost-effective to build and launch since they have been constructed by Principal Investigator Kerri Cahoy’s students at MIT Lincoln Laboratory (with lots of help). There’s even a chance it could be put into operation with forecasters.


The Antenna? It’s a Measuring Tape

That long skinny piece coming out of the bottom right side under MiRaTA’s solar panel? That’s a measuring tape. It’s doubling as a communications antenna. MiRaTA will measure temperature, water vapor and cloud ice in Earth’s atmosphere. These measurements are used to track major storms, including hurricanes, as well as everyday weather. If this test flight is successful, the new, smaller technology will likely be incorporated into future weather satellites – part of our national infrastructure.


Tiny Package Packing a Punch

MiRaTA will also test a new technique using radio signals received from GPS satellites in a higher orbit. They will be used to measure the temperature of the same volume of atmosphere that the radiometer is viewing. The GPS satellite measurement can then be used for calibrating the radiometer. “In physics class, you learn that a pencil submerged in water looks like it’s broken in half because light bends differently in the water than in the air,” Principal Investigator Kerri Cahoy said. “Radio waves are like light in that they refract when they go through changing densities of air, and we can use the magnitude of the refraction to calculate the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere with near-perfect accuracy and use this to calibrate a radiometer.” 


What’s Next?

In the best-case scenario, three weeks after launch MiRaTA will be fully operational, and within three months the team will have obtained enough data to study if this technology concept is working. The big goal for the mission—declaring the technology demonstration a success—would be confirmed a bit farther down the road, at least half a year away, following the data analysis. If MiRaTA’s technology validation is successful, Cahoy said she envisions an eventual constellation of these CubeSats orbiting the entire Earth, taking snapshots of the atmosphere and weather every 15 minutes—frequent enough to track storms, from blizzards to hurricanes, in real time.

Learn more about MiRaTA

Watch the launch!


The mission is scheduled to launch this month (no sooner than Nov. 14), with JPSS-1 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II rocket lifting off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. You’ll be able to watch on NASA TV or at nasa.gov/live.


Watch the launch live HERE on Nov. 14, liftoff is scheduled for Tuesday, 4:47 a.m.! 

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