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Utah News

The life cycle of USU's small satellite comes to an end

HAARP Satellite Image
UMBC Earth and Space Institute
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A composite image from HARP's three polarized image sensors. The image, taken on May 3, 2020, was captured as HARP orbited over Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia, and illustrates HARP's ability to capture atmosphere and land data.

The size of a loaf of bread, a small satellite called HARP deorbited in March 2022. It burned up in Earth’s atmosphere, as is the natural life cycle of many small satellites.

The original mission was only 3 months, yet the HARP satellite functioned for more than two years in orbit. Ryan Martineau, of Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory, and an engineer on the project, explained the significance of a small satellite operating for its entire orbit lifespan.

“The space environment is very harsh. In the sun things can get quite hot, and in the shade behind the Earth it can get quite cold. You have radiation in space that you need to worry about. The space environment is really working against you, to bring down your satellite. So to last two years in a three-month mission requirement, it is a significant accomplishment, and we're very proud of it,” said Martineau.

After being taken up by a rocket to the International Space Station, then pushed off the ISS in February 2020, the satellite orbited the Earth collecting aerosol and cloud data. Using an instrument called a polarimeter, developed by researchers at the University of Maryland, HARP sensed polarized light reflected off the Earth’s surface and clouds, and sent this data back to the Space Dynamics Laboratory for researchers at NASA and other organizations to study.

“So the purpose of the satellite is to research cloud properties and atmospheric properties. For example, if there's a volcano eruption in an area, you can see the difference in particles in the air. You can see how much and what the size of those particles are. That can tell you how pollutants are spreading, that can tell you about how what's in them, and how that might affect weather systems or populations down there,” said Martineau.

This is the first time a polarimeter has been placed on a small satellite and is a proof of concept that small polarimeters can accurately collect this data from space.

A HARP 2 will be placed on NASA’s PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) satellite set to launch in 2023.