NASA claims that swarms of small satellites connected together in a hive mind will provide better and speedier data on weather trends. According to NASA, these satellites are in LEO—Low Earth Orbit—between 100 and 2,000 miles above the earth’s surface. SmallSats, also known as CubeSats, range in size from a piece of bread to a refrigerator.
Engineer Sabrina Thompson has for a while now been studying fine particles in the atmosphere with small satellites. She has created software that will enable SmallSats to communicate and move around in orbit swiftly to collect data quickly. “So we’re investigating at how aerosols and clouds, or microscopic particles suspended in the atmosphere such as dust, pollution, and other such things, affect the environment. We’re interested in how they interact. What impact do they have on the cloud’s lifetime? Not merely from a single perspective point looking down, but from various angles, for example, “Thompson agrees.
Dr. Jose Martins of the UMBC Earth and Space Institute came up with the notion of looking at multiple viewpoints of the clouds, high-resolution data, as well as coordinating satellites to restrict the picture. Thompson and Martins both believe that this will help with weather forecasting, catastrophe reporting, and climate modelling.
According to Thompson, one of the most difficult challenges is persuading the swarm to respond fast to predicting demands, specifying which cloud formation to collect data on and at what time of day to the satellites, whether it’s a massive dust storm on Africa’s west coast or hurricanes in the making.
NASA does have a swarm of SmallSats dubbed as the A Train, but it is always looking for new and improved SmallSats to replace the old ones. The majority of these SmallSats, according to Thompson, barely survive two years but are faster and easier to deploy than larger satellites.
“When it comes to swarms, however, you must find the “ideal ride,” if you will. And by “riding,” I mean “hitch a ride” with a bigger spacecraft. When that bigger spacecraft is prepared to launch, your swarm will be ready as well. We’re considering launching a few of these small satellites with a SpaceX spacecraft, “Thompson agrees.
Small satellites and CubeSats burn up during re-entry. In contrast, bigger satellites can be propelled upward into the “parking orbit” or even down into the atmosphere to safely de-orbit over the ocean or an unpopulated area. All Earth-orbit operations in development must have a plan for safely de-orbiting.