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To investigate heat absorption and emission from Earth’s polar regions, NASA is sending two CubeSat satellites.

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NASA’s PREFIRE mission observes sunlight glinting off ice patches in the Chukchi Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean, to delve into the impact of a warming world on sea ice loss, ice sheet melt, and sea level rise in Earth’s polar regions.

Scheduled for launch in spring 2024, NASA’s PREFIRE mission introduces two compact satellites designed to traverse Earth’s atmosphere and capture crucial data from the planet’s polar regions. These CubeSats, each about the size of a shoebox, are set to detect heat escaping into space, particularly from Earth’s frigid zones. Operating under the mission name Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment (PREFIRE), these miniature satellites leverage technology validated during Mars missions. The primary goal is to unveil the complete spectrum of heat loss from Earth’s polar areas, offering unprecedented insights to enhance the accuracy of climate models.

A collaborative effort between NASA and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with contributions from the universities of Michigan and Colorado, PREFIRE aims to refine our understanding of Earth’s energy budget. In the intricate dance of planetary equilibrium, the heat energy received from the Sun must balance with the energy radiated back into space. PREFIRE’s mission is to meticulously measure and analyze this heat exchange, providing invaluable data to inform climate predictions, particularly in the context of global warming.

The PREFIRE Mission’s Two CubeSats.

The PREFIRE mission is set to deploy two CubeSats, as illustrated in an artist’s concept orbiting Earth, to investigate the heat absorption and emission from Earth’s polar regions. These precise measurements will play a crucial role in refining climate and ice models.

The polar regions, akin to Earth’s radiator fins, play a pivotal role in the planet’s heat distribution. Air and water movements, driven by weather and ocean currents, transport heat energy from the tropics towards the poles, where it is released as thermal infrared radiation—a form of energy familiar from heat lamps. Approximately 60% of this energy escapes into space in far-infrared wavelengths that have remained largely unexplored.

PREFIRE, with its CubeSat mission, aims to bridge this knowledge gap. Brian Drouin, the scientist and deputy principal investigator for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, emphasized the potential to uncover fundamental insights into our planet’s workings. The polar regions, often contributing uncertainty to climate projections, hold the key to understanding the efficiency of radiation emission into space.

Scheduled for launch from New Zealand, the two satellites will carry thermal infrared spectrometers, featuring specially designed mirrors and detectors to split and measure infrared light. This technology, akin to that used by the Mars Climate Sounder on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, has been scaled down to fit the CubeSats. Weighing less than 6 pounds (3 kilograms), the instruments utilize thermocouples, similar to those found in household thermostats, for data collection under Earth’s comparatively warm conditions. The deployment of these miniature instruments aboard CubeSats marks a significant engineering feat for the PREFIRE mission.

light on climate change, global weather patterns.

To achieve comprehensive coverage, the PREFIRE CubeSats will follow distinct orbital paths, converging near the poles at regular intervals. Since the 1970s, the Arctic has experienced warming at a rate three times higher than the global average. Winter sea ice in the Arctic has been diminishing at a rate exceeding 15,900 square miles (41,200 square kilometers) per year, accounting for a 2.6% loss per decade relative to the 1981-2010 average. Simultaneously, Antarctica’s ice sheets have been losing mass at an average rate of around 150 billion tons annually.

These alterations have profound implications, influencing polar ecosystems, ocean temperatures, and circulation patterns. Meltwater from thick ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica contributes significantly to the global rise in sea level since 1993, accounting for approximately one-third of the increase.

Tristan L’Ecuyer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the mission’s principal investigator, highlights the interconnectedness of polar changes and global weather patterns. Understanding and projecting these shifts rely on climate models that factor in various physical processes. PREFIRE aims to enhance these models by providing crucial data on climate variables such as atmospheric temperature, surface properties, water vapor, and clouds. The mission’s comprehensive data collection will contribute to more accurate climate projections, offering insights into the evolving world and its impact on global weather patterns.

To investigate heat absorption and emission from Earth’s polar regions, NASA is sending two CubeSat satellites.

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