Joint US-UK experimental satellites to be launched this summer from Cornwall


CIRCE dual CubeSats will fly in tandem with miniaturized sensors to provide information about the radiation environment in the ionosphere. (Image: NRL)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The historic first space launch from British territory scheduled for this summer will carry two experimental satellites jointly built by the Naval Research Laboratory and the UK Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, the Navy said today.

The Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment (CIRCE) mission was designed by the two laboratories to study the Earth’s ionosphere and particle radiation environment. The ionosphere occupies a region of approximately 85 km at over 600 km altitude, where solar radiation ionizes the atmosphere, creating a charged plasma that interacts with the Earth’s ambient electric and magnetic fields. As a result, the ionosphere can transmit, refract, and reflect radio waves.

“CIRCE will help researchers better understand how the ionosphere changes from day to day, hour to hour and even minute to minute, which is important for the Navy, especially for communications and radar above horizon,” the press release explains.

The two shoebox-sized CubeSats will each carry five miniature sensors, two provided by NRL and three by Dstl. They will operate in low Earth orbit at approximately 555 km.

“We look forward to a successful launch from Spaceport Cornwall and are delighted to continue working with our UK partners once the CIRCE science data begins to flow,” CIRCE Principal Investigator Andrew Nicholas said in the release. Marine.

NRL hired Colorado-based startup Blue Canyon in 2019 to build the two satellites and integrate the sensors.

NRL’s sensor is called the Triple Tiny Ionospheric Photometer (Tri-TIP) and is designed to measure the so-called airglow in the nighttime atmosphere caused by radiation. Two Tri-TIPs will be on board each CubeSat.

The Dstl Remote Ionospheric Sensing (IRIS) suite carries three tiny payloads: an “ion/neutral mass spectrometer, a tri-band global positioning system receiver for ionospheric remote sensing, and a radiation environment monitor”. These payloads were provided by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London, the University of Bath and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, drawing on expertise from the University of Surrey, according to the press release. of the Navy.

The CIRCE mission was originally scheduled to launch in 2020 through the Pentagon’s space testing program, but was delayed in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the CIRCE satellites are set to fly in the first-ever launch from Britain’s new Spaceport in Cornwall. While the UK Ministry of Defense has yet to announce a specific date, officials have said it will take place this summer.

The satellites will be carried by Virgin Orbit’s US arm, the new Virgin Orbit National Systems, on the LauncherOne rocket that lifts off horizontally from a modified Boeing 747 known as Cosmic Girl.

This launch will also carry two other Dstl CubeSats on a mission called Prometheus-2, in conjunction with the US National Reconnaissance Office. The experimental satellites, fitted with sensors to monitor GPS signals and cameras for imagery, will serve as pathfinders in support of Britain’s future Minerva constellation for space-based intelligence and surveillance.


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