Tiny satellite to study big lightning

Researchers are using a satellite the size of a loaf of bread to study a high-altitude lightning-like phenomena that may go a long way toward improving scientific understanding of radiation belts, solar flares, cosmic shocks, and other planets, as well as dust devils and dust storms on Mars.

The National Science Foundation has so far granted almost $75,000 to the Firefly CubeSat program. CubeSats are tiny satellites with dimensions of 10×10×10 centimeters, weighing a little less than 3lbs, and typically using commercial off-the-shelf electronics components, the NSF said. Firefly consists of two instruments: a gamma-ray detector (GRD) and a very low frequency receiver/ photometer experiment (VP).

The goal of the Firefly CubeSat is to determine if what's known as Terrestrial Gamma Ray Flashes (TGFs) are produced by lightning, and to determine the characteristics of lightning that produce the fluxes of gamma rays observed at high altitude. TGFs are short, powerful bursts of gamma rays emitted into space from Earth's upper atmosphere. The gamma rays are thought to be emitted by electrons traveling at or near the speed of light when they are slowed down by interaction with atoms in the upper atmosphere. These events may occur much more often than realized and may be associated with a good portion of the roughly 60 lightning strokes per second that occur worldwide. They could have a large effect on the upper atmosphere and near-Earth space, NSF scientists said.

"Identifying the source of terrestrial gamma ray flashes would be a great step toward fully understanding the physics behind lightning and its effect on the Earth's atmosphere," said NSF Deputy Director Kathie Olsen in a release. The Firefly project is a collaboration of scientists from NASA, Siena College; Universities Space Research Association.; Hawk Institute for Space Science, and University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

According to the NSF, CubeSats will be launched as auxiliary payloads on DOD, NASA, or commercial launches via a system known as the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD). The P-POD features a tubular design and can hold up to 34cm x 10cm x 10cm of deployable hardware,

Firefly is the second CubeSat mission. The first, slated for December, 2009, aboard a Minotaur-4 vehicle is called Radio Aurora Explorer (RAX). With it researchers will make measurements of small-scale structures in the ionosphere that can adversely impact communication and navigation signals.

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