Researchers at Ann Arbor’s U-M Help Design Spacecraft for SRI International, NASA

With the support of NASA, California’s SRI International, an independent research and technology center, announced the launch of the Enhanced Tandem Beacon Experiment (E-TBEx) on June 25. Students and faculty at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan co-designed one of the necessary spacecrafts.
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CubeSats
NASA and SRI International are studying bubbles in the atmosphere that interfere with communication signals. U-M researchers helped design some of the spacecrafts. // Illustration courtesy of NASA

With the support of NASA, California’s SRI International, an independent research and technology center, announced the launch of the Enhanced Tandem Beacon Experiment (E-TBEx) on June 25. Students and faculty at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan co-designed one of the necessary spacecrafts.

The mission aims to study natural bubbles that form in the electrically charged layers of Earth’s upper atmosphere. These bubbles can compromise communication and navigation signals as they pass from space to the ground. Because these bubbles appear and evolve unpredictably, they are difficult for scientists to study from the ground.

E-TBEx uses two CubeSat satellites and six larger spacecraft COSMIC-2 satellites to send test signals, similar to those used by communications and GPS satellites, at various frequencies. U-M researchers co-designed the CubeSat spacecraft at the U-M Exploration Laboratory.

SRI researchers will observe how the signals are received on the ground and then measure where and how the signals are distorted by atmospheric bubbles. The combination of measurements from all eight satellites will give scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study these bubbles from multiple angles at the same time.

“This research has the potential to be a transformative step in identifying and preventing disturbances to the critical communication and navigation systems we rely on daily,” says Dr. Roland Tsunoda, E-TBEx principal investigator at SRI International.

The E-TBEx and COSMIC-2 missions were launched from NASA Kennedy Space Center aboard the U.S. Air Force Space Test Program-2 Falcon Heavy vehicle. The experiment will be completed after one year in orbit, and researchers plan to apply the findings to improve strategies to mitigate the harmful impacts to commercial navigation systems and tactical military communication.

SRI International, a research center headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif., works primarily in advanced technology and systems, biosciences, computing, and education. SRI has five decades of science and engineering experience in space-based radio beacon design, assembly, test, and operations dating back to the early NASA Pioneer research spacecraft.

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