Eleven tiny satellites called CubeSats will accompany a spy satellite into Earth orbit on Thursday, Aug. 2, inaugurating a new type of inexpensive, modular nanosatellite designed to piggyback aboard other NASA missions.
One of the 11 will be CINEMA (CubeSat for Ions, Neutrals, Electrons, & MAgnetic fields), an 8-pound, shoebox-sized package which was built over a period of three years by 45 students from the University of California, Berkeley, Kyung Hee University in Korea, Imperial College London, Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, and University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez.
"This is a new way of doing space research, funded by the National Science Foundation with launch arranged by NASA," said CINEMA principal investigator Robert Lin, professor emeritus of physics and former director of UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. "This is our first try, but if everything works, we’re going to get a lot of good science out of this."
CINEMA will obtain images of the "ring current," an electrical current that encircles the Earth and which, during large magnetic "space storms," can blow out power grids on the ground. By next year, CubeSat will be joined by three identical satellites - two launched by Korea and another NASA-launched CubeSat - that together will monitor the 3-dimensional structure of the ring current and warn of dangerous activity.
Launch is set for just after midnight PDT this Thursday, Aug. 2, from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. UC Berkeley scientists hope to communicate with the satellite as it passes over California around noon PDT, and get it into full operation by a week after launch.
CINEMA is one of five university-built CubeSats aboard the Atlas V rocket; the other six are military or commercial. The main payload is NROL-36, a classified satellite commissioned by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.
NASA’s CubeSat Launch initiative provides an opportunity for small satellite payloads to fly as auxiliary payloads on previously planned missions. The nanosatellites are made of cubes that are approximately four inches on a side, have a volume of about one quart, weigh about two pounds, and are meant to be grouped in twos or threes for a particular satellite. CINEMA, for example, is comprised of three cubes. Some two dozen CubeSats are built or under construction at universities alone, and these 11 are the first to go into orbit.