NASA miniaturizing century-old component for use on CubeSats

GREENBELT, Md. A team of NASA scientists and engineers from the Goddard Space Flight Center is working on a project to upgrade and miniaturize the electronics on a prototype instrument, called the Concentration vs. Height for an Orbiting Electromagnetic Sounder -- dubbed ECHOES -- that would be used to “sound” the ionosphere from either a ground-based observatory or, ultimately, from a constellation of CubeSats.

To determine the electron density vertically in the ionosphere (the important atmospheric layer that can interfere with the transmission of radio waves) scientists have long used radio sounders -- in essence, dedicated radio stations -- that operate by directing a range of different radio frequencies to the ionosphere and using a receiver to collect and measure the values of the returning signals or echoes.

plans to initially use ECHOES on the ground, contributing to a network of instruments that support space-weather prediction and real-time mapping of the ionosphere. Further out, however, NASA may be able to use ECHOES in a constellation of CubeSats that would make simultaneous, multipoint soundings of the topside of Earth’s enveloping ionosphere, which sits from 46 to about 621 miles above the surface of the earth.

“Basically, what we’re doing is miniaturizing a 100-year-old radio receiver signal-processing technology,” said ECHOES co-principal investigator Damon Bradley, who led the development of the digital signal-processing system for the radiometer on NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP mission, which tracks global soil-moisture levels. “ECHOES is essentially a low-frequency radar that uses space-based digital-, as on SMAP, but for probing the ionosphere as opposed to mapping global soil-moisture levels.”

Mark Adrian, Goddard scientist and ECHOES principal investigator, said of the next steps for the ECHOES team: “A successful proof-of-concept demonstration of the ECHOES instrument would place Goddard in a unique position to compete for other future heliophysics or planetary opportunities, particularly those involved with or small-satellite platforms.”

Goddard Space Flight Center’s Shing Fung (left), Mark Adrian (standing), and Damon Bradley (right) are miniaturizing a century-old technology for studying the ionosphere potentially from a constellation of CubeSats. Bradley is holding an electronics board that the team will migrate to the Goddard Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory later this year for testing. Photo credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk.

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