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NASA Launches Small Satellite to Improve Climate Change Predictions

NASA's PREFIRE mission launches CubeSats aiming to improve understanding of polar energy dynamics and their impact on global climate.

Saurabh Shukla
NASA Launches Small Satellite to Improve Climate Change Predictions (Photo Source: NASA)
NASA Launches Small Satellite to Improve Climate Change Predictions (Photo Source: NASA)

On May 25, 2024, NASA successfully launched a small satellite from New Zealand, initiating a pioneering mission to measure heat emissions from Earth's polar regions. This mission aims to improve climate change predictions by providing critical new data. The satellite, part of the PREFIRE (Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment) mission, will deliver exceptional information on the heat radiating from the Arctic and Antarctic, aiding scientists in making more accurate climate change forecasts.

The first of two satellites designed for the PREFIRE mission was launched aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from Māhia, New Zealand. PREFIRE's primary goal is to measure the heat Earth radiates into space from its polar regions using two shoebox-sized CubeSats. The mission is expected to operate for 10 months, offering valuable data that will assist researchers in understanding and predicting changes in ice, sea levels, and weather patterns in a warming world.

Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, highlighted the mission's significance, stating, “NASA’s innovative PREFIRE mission will fill a gap in our understanding of the Earth system – providing our scientists a detailed picture of how Earth’s polar regions influence how much energy our planet absorbs and releases.” This information is vital for various sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, and coastal communities, which need accurate climate predictions to plan and adapt effectively.

The second PREFIRE CubeSat is scheduled to launch from the same site in the coming days. Once in orbit, both CubeSats will undergo a 30-day checkout period to ensure they are functioning correctly. The data collected by these satellites will focus on the far-infrared radiation emitted by the Earth's poles, a type of energy currently lacking detailed measurements.

Earth's energy budget, the balance between incoming solar energy and outgoing heat energy, is central to the PREFIRE mission. This balance determines the planet's temperature and climate. The polar regions emit significant amounts of far-infrared radiation, influenced by atmospheric water vapor and cloud composition. By capturing this data, PREFIRE will enhance our understanding of where and when far-infrared energy escapes into space from the Arctic and Antarctic.

Each CubeSat in the PREFIRE mission is equipped with a thermal infrared spectrometer, featuring specially designed mirrors and sensors to measure infrared wavelengths. The instruments were miniaturized to fit the CubeSats, involving innovative engineering to scale down some components while enlarging others.

This mission marks a significant step forward in enhancing our understanding of climate dynamics and the intricate energy exchanges at Earth’s poles.

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