UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory plans to send 4 satellites into orbit by 2022

Ronan Modolo / Vincent Genot / Robert Lillis / /Courtesy

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UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, or SSL, in collaboration with NASA, is planning to send four satellites into orbit by the end of 2022, according to a press release.

Led by two different teams of scientists and engineers at SSL, the four satellites, which will orbit around Mars and Earth, are a part of two missions to collect information about solar wind and space weather, according to the press release. 

One of the missions, the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, or EscaPADE, is composed of two spacecraft and would orbit Mars to explore how solar wind has contributed to the erosion of the Martian atmosphere, according to Robert Lillis, an associate research physicist at SSL. EscaPADE would be the first twin-satellite mission to another planet, according to Lillis. 

“We’ve ever only had one satellite. … Why EscaPADE is different is that EscaPADE is two twin spacecraft, identically instrumented, and the two spacecraft are put in strategically chosen orbits in order to make the multipoint measurements necessary to understand the system,” Lillis said.

According to Lillis, the EscaPADE mission is critical in understanding how solar wind variables, such as speed and density, contributed to the erosion of Mars’ upper atmosphere, which will help scientists piece together the evolution of the planet’s climate.

Consequently, Lillis believes that the information collected from the EscaPADE mission is valuable in understanding the interaction between solar wind and planets in other solar systems as well.

“The relation between those solar wind variables and the escape rate of the Martian atmosphere is a very important piece of the puzzle of, ‘Where did the Mars atmosphere go?’ ” Lillis said. “The things we learn from EscaPADE and Mars will be applicable not just to Mars’ history, but to the field of planetary solar wind interaction in general.”

The other two spacecrafts — a part of the Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites, or TRACERS, mission — received final approval from NASA last month and will measure electrical fields with instruments built by SSL specialists, according to the press release. The SSL team, led by assistant research physicist John Bonnell, will orbit Earth’s northern magnetic cusp to gain a deeper understanding of the forces that drive space weather, according to the press release. 

More specifically, the TRACERS mission plans to answer questions about how solar winds impact the magnetosphere, or Earth’s magnetic field, according to the press release. This information could help NASA to better forecast how energy that pushes past the magnetosphere and through the magnetopause, the sphere’s protective shield, has the potential to disrupt satellite communications and power grids.

According to an article by NASA, the mission will launch no later than August 2022 and is funded for no more than $115 million.

According to Lillis, the EscaPADE project could be funded up to $55 million over a three-year period and has already received $8.3 million for its first year to complete a detailed study regarding the project. Although most planetary missions cost between $600 and $700 million, Lillis believes that the “democratization of space exploration” has contributed to the smaller budget afforded to the project.

“If we can pull this off, we can show that, yes, the risk of failure will be higher, but instead of sending one mission and spending $500 or $600 million on it, maybe NASA can send 10 missions and spend the same amount of money,” Lillis said.

In 2020, NASA will decide whether or not to continue with the EscaPADE mission, according to the press release. If the mission is approved, the twin spacecraft would most likely launch into space either with another NASA mission, Psyche, or with another commercial launch opportunity, according to the release. 

Contact Sydney Hilbush at [email protected].