Small CU satellite getting big weather updates

Posted at 9:18 PM, Dec 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-02 23:18:39-05

A new CU-Boulder satellite will soon collect data from solar flares and help researchers understand solar weather more than they have before.

The miniature X-ray solar spectrometer cube satellite, or MINXSS, is a miniature satellite that can read soft X-ray data. That's a spectrum of the light scale unseen by the human eye. The satellite will be launched into orbit Thursday at 3:55 p.m. MT.

"When the sun flares, most of the solar radiation comes off in the soft X-rays," said Tom Woods, Associate Director of Technical Divisions at CU-Boulder. "That affects communication, affects navigation systems like GPS. It's very important for what we call space weather."

Much like on Earth, space has weather, the readings from the MINXSS can be used to more accurately predict disturbances.

"We get about three flares a day," Woods said. "So, there's always flares going off. It's only the largest flares that have and impact and they have to change routing of planes and things like that."

The satellite was developed by professors and about 40 CU-Boulder students. It costs about $1 million and is about the size of a loaf of bread. Making smaller satellites costs much less than tradition satellites, which can be a hundred times more expensive.

"We'll communicate with the satellite about 20 minutes everyday," said Ph.D. Student Colden Rouleau. "That's a pretty limited amount of time for the way the orbit works."

Student researchers will use that data to better understand solar flares. The mission will last six months, but this isn't the last satellite of its kind. There's already a second satellite built. That satellite is designed for a longer mission.