Small Satellite, Big Questions: CuPID CubeSat Will Get New Perspective on Sun-Earth Boundary


Sep 10, 2021

When you help build a satellite the size of a shoebox, you learn pretty much everything about it, says Emil Atz, a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering at Boston University. You learn how to write a proposal to fund it, how to place the screws that hold it together, how to test each instrument to ensure it functions properly.

And then you learn how to say goodbye.

“It’s a scary feeling, working on a piece of hardware full-time for four years, and then putting it into the rocket deployer to never see it again,” Atz said. “I didn’t want to close the door.”

This September, a rocket will launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, bringing with it Landsat 9, a joint mission of NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. The rocket will also carry four CubeSats – compact, box-shaped satellites used for space research projects.

Compared to standard satellites, CubeSats are inexpensive to launch. Just like when friends split a cab fare, tiny satellites can hitch a ride on rockets carrying several other missions, bringing down the cost for each.

One of the CubeSats launching with Landsat 9 is the Cusp Plasma Imaging Detector, or CuPID. No larger than a loaf of bread nor heavier than a watermelon, CuPID has a big job. From orbit about 340 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, little CuPID will image the boundary where Earth’s magnetic field interacts with the Sun’s.

Atz is part of a team of collaborators from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Boston UniversityDrexel UniversityJohns Hopkins UniversityMerrimack CollegeAerospace Corporation, and University of Alaska, Fairbanks who made CuPID possible.

Two people work on a small satellite
Emil Atz and Kenneth M Simms, engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, wiring elements of the CuPID spacecraft — short for Cusp Plasma Imaging Detector — in January 2020 at Goddard. Credits: Brian Walsh

On a mission

Produced by Earth’s magnetic field, the magnetosphere is a protective bubble surrounding our planet. “Most of the time, we’re shielded pretty well from the Sun’s activity, as energy and particles from the Sun go around the Earth,” said Brian Walsh, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering at Boston University and CuPID’s principal investigator.

Three people stand behind a piece of space hardware
NASA scientists Michael Collier, David Sibeck, and Scott Porter teamed to develop and demonstrate the first wide-field X-ray camera for studying a poorly understood phenomenon called “charge exchange.” Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

But when the Sun is active enough, its magnetic field can fuse with the Earth’s in a process called magnetic reconnection. Earth’s magnetosphere changes shape and solar radiation comes trickling toward us, potentially putting satellites and astronauts in harm’s way.

“With CuPID, we want to know what the boundary of Earth’s magnetic field looks like, and understand how and why energy sometimes gets in,” Walsh said.

While missions like NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale or MMS mission fly through magnetic reconnection events to see them at a micro scale, CuPID seeks a macro view. Using a wide field-of-view soft X-ray camera, CuPID observes lower-energy, or “soft,” X-rays emitted when solar particles collide with Earth’s magnetosphere.

Building that camera wasn’t easy. X-rays don’t bend as easily as visible light, so they’re much harder to focus. Plus, imaging Earth’s magnetic boundary while orbiting Earth is like sitting in the front row of a movie theater – so close, it’s difficult to see the full picture. A suitable camera needs to be specially built to capture a wide field of view from relatively close.

Sixteen years ago, a team of scientists, engineers, technicians and students at Goddard and Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia began work on a prototype. Instead of bending the light, their camera reflected or “bounced” the X-rays into focus, passing them through a grid of tightly-packed channels arranged to give it a wide-field view.

In 2012, Dr. Michael R. Collier, who led the Goddard contribution to CuPID, and Goddard colleagues Dr. David G. Sibeck and Dr. F. Scott Porter, tested the camera in space for the first time aboard the DXL sounding rocket.

It was so successful that we immediately started working on ways to miniaturize it and put it into a CubeSat,” Collier said.

In 2015, a predecessor of CuPID flew on a second sounding rocket flight. Soon after, the project was selected by NASA to bring the full satellite with avionics to fruition. Students and scientists have been working on CuPID ever since.

High risk, high reward

Until California Polytechnic State University developed the first CubeSat in 1999, most satellites were the size of cars or buses and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and launch, said Walsh. Those high costs deterred risk-taking. If a new, experimental tool failed, large sums of money would be lost.

A cereal-box sized satellite with some wiring exposed sits on a table while someone with gloved hands works on it
A photo of CuPID in December 2019, when the chassis, or base frame of the device, met the avionics. Credits: Emil Atz

“The original goal of CubeSats was to be lower cost, allowing the democratization of space,” said Collier. Lower costs mean more room for experimentation and innovation.

“They’re higher risk, but also higher reward,” Walsh said.

The proliferation of small, experimental satellite missions has created more opportunities for students to get involved in hands-on engineering projects.

In her first year as a mechanical engineering student at Boston University, Jacqueline Bachrach, a self-described “space kid,” enrolled in Walsh’s Introduction to Rocketry course. Soon after, she joined his lab and has since taken on an important role in the CuPID mission.

“I’ve learned a lot of important skills, which I may eventually apply to other missions,” said Bachrach, now a junior. “Everyone on the project has so much knowledge that they’re willing to share. It’s been an incredibly valuable experience, especially for an undergrad.”

The journey ahead

The team is already preparing for CuPID’s insights into the mysteries of magnetic reconnection.

Atz says he is eager to make first contact with the satellite once it’s in space and to start transferring data. Students will be involved with that, too. He and Walsh have begun training several undergraduate students, including Bachrach, to track the satellite’s health and interpret its data from orbit.

“With a big mission, you don’t get a lot of opportunities for students to have a heavy hand in contributing,” Atz said. “With CuPID, students have been involved almost every step of the way.”

For the many students and scientists involved in CuPID’s more than 15 years of development, the most exciting part is yet to come.

A person in clean gear looks on at the cereal box-sized CuPID CubeSat on a table
In the lab, CuPID Principal Investigator Brian Walsh admires the satellite in July 2021, the day before it left to meet the rocket deployer at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.Credits: Emil Atz

Banner Image: In April 2021, Connor O’Brien and Emil Atz complete “vibration testing” of CuPID to ensure it can withstand the space environment. Credits: Brian Walsh

By Alison Gold
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Last Updated: Sep 10, 2021Editor: Sarah Frazier

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Ron Long
September 11, 2021 3:30 am

OK, I had no idea what “magnetic reconnection” was, and, as a user of geomagnetic data (h/t Bob Schnepfe, gone too soon) I looked it up. Magnetic fields do not penetrate, or cross, each other, instead the stronger magnetic field, made up of force lines, squashes against the weaker one and distorts both. Plasma, mostly that ejected from our Sun, race along until encountering one of these magnetic field contacts, then race along at the boundary, leading to some spectacular effects, like Aurora Borealis. It appears to me that monitoring the Earth and Sun magnetic field contact actually gives us a chance to analyze those plasma events that can be destructive. We’ll se, but so far looks promising.

September 11, 2021 5:11 am

Good timing on the launch as the sunspot activity is just ramping up for the next solar cycle.

September 11, 2021 5:58 am

The banner image explanation doesn’t seem right. I’d guess that vibration testing is most important for ensuring the satellite can survive the launch and vibrations associated with that, more so than from the space environment.

Carlo, Monte
Reply to  Scissor
September 11, 2021 7:02 am

Yeah, shake testing is for launch durability.

James F. Evans
September 11, 2021 9:01 am

So-called “magnetic reconnection” is a failed concept. There are no physical field lines, rather it is a “map” of the “territory” which is the magnetic field and ‘field lines” denote magnetic field strength. Instead, it is plasma flow where magnetic field strength is determined by speed & density of the plasma (yes, magnetic fields can extend or be present a long way from where the generating plasma exists).

Different plasma flows when they interact can “short circuit” causing release of energy.

A better description is an electromagnetic “double layer” event.

Dave Fair
Reply to  James F. Evans
September 11, 2021 12:29 pm

Whoda thunk? The Earth’s magnetic field is created by plasma flow. Trot out the Nobel Prize in physics.

James F. Evans
Reply to  Dave Fair
September 11, 2021 4:27 pm

Iron (molten iron has plasma characteristics) within a spinning Earth seems to generate the magnetic field.

Dave Fair
Reply to  James F. Evans
September 12, 2021 8:50 am

So a bar magnet has plasma flowing within it?

James F. Evans
Reply to  Dave Fair
September 12, 2021 10:13 am

In a way, yes. Electrons flow (move) or are caused to move via the matrix of the iron atoms, i.e. it is ‘magnetized’..

Dave Fair
Reply to  James F. Evans
September 12, 2021 1:29 pm

Do the electrons continue to flow in the iron bar after its magnetization?

James F. Evans
Reply to  Dave Fair
September 12, 2021 6:01 pm

Hypothetically, I would say yes, but I’m not aware of observation & measurement that confirms that hypothesis.

Not all physical mechanisms of a bar magnet are fully understood or perhaps it should be stated that there is still debate of different ideas,

A question arises as to whether there is a way to detect electrons moving within a bar magnet when it is not part of a larger circuit.

The movement may be quite small and there may not be an instrument invented which can successfully observe & measure at that molecular level.

Dave Fair
Reply to  James F. Evans
September 13, 2021 12:15 am

Ok, so neither plasma nor electrons have been measured flowing in a bar magnet. That’s tough on the plasma theory.

James F. Evans
Reply to  Dave Fair
September 13, 2021 8:06 am

It has an impact regarding any understanding of bar magnets, since nobody’s hypothesis has been confirmed.

But regarding plasma theory, repeated observation & measurement does confirm the movement or flow of plasma (ions, electrons or both) generates magnetic fields, nobody denies that, it is established scientific theory.

(There is no other hypothesis for how magnetic fields are generated.)

In fact, other than a bar magnet, plasma theory has been affirmed by observation & measurement in laboratories. And increasingly in space because space instruments (satellite with detectors of electric fields) are now coming on line.

An absence of ability to observe & measure does not equal absence of the physical process, itself.

(There are unconfirmed claims that a small light can be hooked up [in some unknown way] to a bar magnet and it will light up, which would be an indirect observation & measurement of electrons moving within the bar.)

Dave Fair
Reply to  James F. Evans
September 13, 2021 9:59 am

An absence of ability to observe & measure does not equal absence of the physical process, itself.” Ouch. You might want to reconsider that sentence, James.

James F. Evans
Reply to  Dave Fair
September 13, 2021 10:36 am

I have and I agree with you.

Ultimately, observation & measurement is essential to scientific knowledge.

But, consider this, electromagnetic fields existed before Man was able to observe & measure them.

Our ability or inability didn’t change the physical existence of electromagnetism.

Only our skill & technology to observe & measure electromagnetism has changed.

And our ability to use electromagnetism, i.e. radio broadcast & reception.

Dave Fair
Reply to  James F. Evans
September 13, 2021 10:52 am

So that proves the existence of whatever it is you can’t measure?

James F. Evans
Reply to  Dave Fair
September 13, 2021 12:04 pm

No,that’s you distorting the statement. Generally, there is an idea that a physical process is occurring, you attempt to observe & measure the supposed physical process by detection instruments (often which had to be invented themselves) and you record the observations & measurements.

Question Mr. Fair, did electromagnetism exist before we had the knowledge & equipment to observe & measure it?

Dave Fair
Reply to  James F. Evans
September 13, 2021 1:46 pm

Your circular arguments are beginning to tire me, James. If I can’t observe it, I can’t prove it. Finito.

James F. Evans
Reply to  Dave Fair
September 13, 2021 2:11 pm

No, Sir, I asked you a direct question and you refuse to answer, once that happens, it’s apparent discussion is fruitless.

The arguments tire you because you can’t answer them.

Dave Fair
Reply to  James F. Evans
September 13, 2021 2:30 pm

This discussion has degenerated into one where I try to prove that the proverbial teapot doesn’t orbit the sun between the Earth and Mars’ orbits.

James F. Evans
Reply to  Dave Fair
September 13, 2021 3:29 pm

Still not answering the question I asked you to answer.

That’s basic to a scientific discussion.

David Blenkinsop
Reply to  James F. Evans
September 11, 2021 4:27 pm

Well, yes, thanks for those insights/statements (from Ron Long and James Evans both), literally contradicting, as they do, the stated objective of the head posted article! I’ve always thought it very strange to think of these fictional lines of force — these artifacts of mere mathematical convention — as something that somehow could have a great extra impact by way of breaking themselves, say, or by way of plugging into one another!

Even if we were to invoke quantum theory, this would be a strange way to look at things. The way it seems, however, is that proponents of this kind of jargon are just trying to look at things in an extended classical theory sort of way? Assuming that they are studying a real phenomenon, there just *has* to be a better way of describing this, e.g., “double layer field” or whatever.

James F. Evans
Reply to  David Blenkinsop
September 11, 2021 11:50 pm

An electromagnetic Double Layer has a specific physical description first described by Irving Langmuir and also described by Hannes Alfvén a Nobel Prize winner for his work in plasma physics.

Dave Fair
Reply to  David Blenkinsop
September 13, 2021 12:20 am

“… these fictional lines of force — these artifacts of mere mathematical convention …” Gee, I must have not really seen those iron filings line up around the magnet in grade school. Those were only fictional lines of force that are artifacts of mere mathematical convention and have no power to affect iron filings. Thanks for clearing up a lifelong error of mine.

James F. Evans
Reply to  Dave Fair
September 13, 2021 12:39 pm

You’ve had a life time of errors.

Dave Fair
Reply to  James F. Evans
September 13, 2021 1:49 pm

You haven’t? I certainly have.

James F. Evans
Reply to  Dave Fair
September 13, 2021 2:52 pm

I have, but I don’t retain incomplete ideas I gained as a child.

Any electrical engineer or physicist will tell you that a magnetic field is a continuum of decreasing strength from the source of the magnetic field.

Iron clumps not because there is a ribbon (a force line) of increased magnetic field strength some distance from the magnetic source, but because iron within a magnetic field becomes magnetized itself, thus, attracts other filings of iron.

Indeed, these “artifacts of mere mathematical convention …”,
the “force lines”, are a measurement of the magnetic field’s strength at that distance from the magnetized object indicated on the graphic representation, thus it runs parallel to the object.

On the far side of the “force line” magnetic strength is weaker and on the near side it is stronger.

Do you understand the concept of a continuum?

The map is not the territory.

I think an electrical engineering textbook would be helpful for you.

Your grade school teacher would give you a D: fails to understand basic concepts.

Tom Abbott
September 11, 2021 10:13 am

Getting young people involved in science this way is the way to go.

Astronomy is booming, partially due to small projects like this. I look forward to seeing their results.

It also helps that numerous launch options are available today.

Dave Fair
Reply to  Tom Abbott
September 11, 2021 12:31 pm

That damned Capitalism wrecking things again.

Reply to  Dave Fair
September 11, 2021 2:41 pm

More gross exaggeration. The photos show that the devices are 3 to 4 times the size of their descriptions. Perhaps this is just a small example of how easy it is for the media to lie to people without people ever realizing what goes on.

Reply to  AndyHce
September 11, 2021 5:48 pm
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