Four Berkeley satellites could explore Mars and the Earth by 2022


two TRACERS satellites in orbit around the Earth

A representation of the artist of the twin TRACERS satellites that will monitor the solar wind particles that hit the Earth's magnetosphere. (Image courtesy of University of Iowa)

If all goes as planned, two groups of scientists and engineers from the Space Sciences Laboratory of the University of Berkeley will send experiments in orbit around Mars and on Earth by the end of 2022, each mission consisting of identical twin satellites.

Last month, NASA announced that a mission consisting of two spacecraft, each with an identical set of experiments, is one of three finalists that can be chosen for launch in three years. Driven by Robert Lillis, Associate Director for Planetary Science and Astrobiology at the Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, the escape and plasma acceleration and dynamics explorers (EscaPADE) orbit Mars and explore the way the solar wind drives the atmosphere away from the planet. The twin satellites, each the size of a small mini-bar fridge, would also map the planet's ionosphere, a layer of Mars's upper atmosphere that could interfere with radio communications between future Martian colonies.

In a year, NASA will decide whether the mission will go ahead, potentially committing up to $ 55 million to carry it out. More than one of the three finalists can be selected to fly, said Lillis.

In June, NASA gave the go-ahead for the TACEM Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites mission, or TRACERS, which will employ two identical satellites to observe the northern magnetic cusp of the Earth – a region surrounding the Earth's North Pole where the field magnetic of the planet the lines curve towards the Earth, in particular during violent geomagnetic storms triggered by explosions from the sun.

Led by Craig Kletzing of Iowa City University in Iowa City, the TRACERS space probe will measure electric fields with instruments built by UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) specialists. The SSL team will be led by John Bonnell, a physical search researcher SSL. Apart from the costs of re-share, TRACERS is funded for up to $ 115 million, of which about $ 13.5 million will arrive at UC Berkeley.

The two missions – one time, the other a strong candidate – take advantage of the SSL experience in the design, construction and management of satellite fleets to study the magnetic and electrical environments of the Earth and the moon. The chronology mission of the events and interactions with Macroscala during the sub-storm mission, or THEMIS, was a fleet of five satellites launched in 2007 to determine the origin of the substorms in the Earth's magnetic environment and the source of glitter in the auroras colored.

Two of these THEMIS micro-satellites were sent to the moon in 2010 as a separate mission called ARTEMIS (Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon's Interaction with the Sun) and are still orbiting around the moon studying like its magnetic field is affected by the solar wind. SSL scientists and engineers have also built tools for the two-satellite STEREO mission, which takes stereo images of the sun. EscaPADE would be the first multi-satellite mission on another planet.

"The selection of two space missions and one of the main tools led by SSL researchers in this round shows the great intellectual strength that Berkeley has built in space science research," said Steven Beckwith, director of SSL and UC Berkeley, professor of astronomy. "It also shows NASA's trust in SSL to design, build, test and fly space satellites, a trust that comes from years of laboratory investment. SSL is now ready to support the next generation of Berkeley space scientists who will lead missions in the next decade. "


EscaPADE was selected for a "concept design" of 8.3 million dollars a year by NASA's Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx), a program that emphasizes small spacecraft – less than 400 pounds – capable of driving independent planetary missions. The twin spacecraft will share their space race with another NASA mission or with a commercial launch opportunity. EscaPADE would probably fly aboard the same rocket that will launch Psyche, a 2022 mission to explore the mostly metallic asteroid of the same name.

EscaPADE satellites in orbit around Mars

The two twin EscaPADE satellites, if approved by NASA, will fly to Mars in 2022 and will surround the planet in complementary orbits to sample the hot ionized plasma (yellow and green cross section) and magnetic fields (blue lines) to understand how 39; Mars atmosphere escapes into space. (Image of Berkeley courtesy of Robert Lillis)

"This is exciting because it is NASA's attempt to see if the new space age, what people call the democratization of space – with reduced vehicle costs and new space startups and much more reliable reliable parts that are a fraction of the price that they were previously – will result in a much cheaper way to do planetary explorations, "said Lillis. "It's also a bit scary to be one of those little guinea pigs."

Each satellite of the EscaPADE mission will carry tools built on SSL to measure the flow of high-energy electrons and ionized oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules escaping from Mars, the magnetic field detectors built at UCLA and a probe to measure slower or thermal ions built at Embry – Riddle Air Force University in Daytona Beach, Florida. With twin satellites, conditions can be measured simultaneously at two points around the planet, allowing scientists to link the conditions of the plasma at one site to the flow of escape ions into another. During the mission, the two satellites will change position to map the upper atmosphere and the magnetosphere of almost the entire planet from an altitude between 200 and 7,000 kilometers.

These data are fundamental for revealing the history of the climate of Mars and for determining how and when it lost its atmosphere, which was once dense enough to allow running water, including rivers, lakes and possibly oceans.

Another goal is to globally sample the ionosphere of Mars, which can interfere with radio communications between surface people, between people on the planet and the spaceship in orbit and between the settlers of Mars and the Earth.

"Both for radio communication and for a possible GPS system on Mars, it is necessary to understand the structure and variability of the ionosphere to understand how the ionosphere will interrupt those signals, influencing both positioning and communications for future Martian settlers," he said. Lillis. .


TRACERS is one of a long series of NASA missions designed to understand what drives time in space: the winds, storms and electric currents that occur in space around the Earth, similar to the weather systems we monitor in the lower atmosphere. Storms in the upper atmosphere and in the ionosphere can influence communications on Earth and the safety of astronauts and satellites.

interactions of the solar wind with the earth's magnetic field

Winds of charged particles from the sun (off the screen towards the lower left) hit the Earth's magnetosphere and penetrate reconnection points somewhere on the magnetopause. Those high-energy particles – electrons and ions – are channeled along the lines of the magnetic field up to the earth's magnetic cusp. In the foreground at the top right, the twin TRACERS satellites will fly in single rows in a polar orbit to sample the particles in the cusp, to determine where and when reconnection occurs. (Image courtesy of University of Iowa)

The space climate is driven by a vast wave of solar particles from the sun called the solar wind. When these particles reach the Earth, they interact with the magnetic field of our planet, sometimes creating destructive electromagnetic storms.

The earth's magnetic field, the so-called magnetosphere, protects life on the ground from this solar radiation, deflecting it safely around the planet. However, part of the energy in that solar wind hits the magnetopause, the protective shield at its limit. At these sites, the sun's magnetic field reconnects and connects to the earth's magnetic field, allowing high-energy solar particles to flow and spark around the world. Earth's magnetic field lines channel these charged particles into a single point, the magnetic cusp near the Earth's North Pole, eventually creating a halo of colored auroras around the pole.

The two TRACERS satellites will pilot a single file in a polar orbit at an altitude of about 600 kilometers, taking it through the cusp several times a day to sample the particles that flow along this drain, in search of those who have an energy to indicate that they just enter through a reconnection hole.

"The reconnection takes place somewhere on the magnetopause itself, 66,000 or 67,000 kilometers above the surface, and we see the effects in the dawn at low altitudes," said Bonnell. "The TRACERS will fly over the sunrise but will pass through the lines of the magnetic field that carry all these energetic particles to hit the upper atmosphere."

TRACER, he said, will solve a long question about where the reconnection to the magnetopause occurs and how the solar wind affects the place and times, helping NASA to better predict the influx of energetic particles in the earth's magnetic field that have the potential to destroy electricity and satellite communications.

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