Orbiting several hundred kilometers above the planet are two satellites, each the size of a half-loaf of bread, measuring bursts of light-speed electrons that sometimes rain into the atmosphere. When researchers first launched them in 2015, they had hoped the little satellites would last 3 months before they malfunctioned. More than 7 years later, they are still transmitting information about the variation in and location of the electron bursts—and the team has 19 published papers to show for the $1.2 million mission, called FIREBIRD II.
The success of FIREBIRD II and missions like it are changing the way scientists think about studying space weather, the field of space physics concerned with the activity of charged solar particles and their impact on Earth. Space weather missions using small satellites known as CubeSats earned more bang for their buck when compared with larger NASA missions, producing more than four times the number of publications per dollar, according to a recent study. “CubeSats are not toys,” says Amir Caspi, a solar astrophysicist at the Southwest Research Institute and an author of the study. “CubeSats are real scientific vehicles that can achieve real science.”
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