As a community, we are at a Tipping Point, where the needs and capabilities of different players have become aligned as follows: the development of small satellites, miniaturized instruments, and electronics is aligned with NASA mission needs, together with computational and algorithmic capabilities to handle large amounts of ionospheric/thermospheric data to produce a mission-applicable product. In this Phase I SBIR proposal for Topic S1.12: Remote Sensing Instrument Technologies for Heliophysics, we describe our research plan to design a CubeSat-compatible instrument for imaging the ionosphere and thermosphere in ultraviolet light. The purpose of this imaging is to derive several key ionospheric environmental parameters (including electron density and ionospheric irregularities) and thermospheric composition (column O/N2). Images of the irregularities or “bubbles” are more useful than a single line measurement (or 1-D cut) through the same bubble feature because an image permits the geographic extent of the irregularity and its motion to be deduced. The proposed instrument, called Multichannel Thermosphere and Ionosphere Photometer Scanner (MTIPS), will allow us to image the ionospheric and column O/N2 densities to gain valuable insights into the solar and magnetospheric forcing of our space environment. The MTIPS design will be flexible in its ability to accomplish the mission science objectives over a range of expected NASA-sponsored LEO CubeSat launch opportunities. The proposed research will establish the feasibility of CubeSats for UV remote sensing and develop a conceptual design of the MTIP payload.
NASA has an interest in the accurate characterization of the ionosphere-thermosphere system for many applications, ranging from spacecraft charging to communications. We expect that the data from MTIPS instruments will provide complementary data to the NASA GOLD and ICON missions. Future NASA missions would also benefit from the development of the MTIP payload, the miniaturization of the imager in this project would be able to be transitioned for future NASA CubeSat and SmallSat missions.
The small size, weight, and power of the proposed MTIPS instrument mean that it could easily fly on CubeSats. MTIPS will obtain useful data from almost any Low Earth Orbit (LEO) mission, ranging from three-axis stabilized to spinning. This versatility makes it attractive to a number of different agencies, including the US Air Force, US Navy, and NSF.