A climate change smallsat project is bringing U.S. and Russian scientists together

No country should face existential threats to our planet alone, one of the leading scientists said.
Chris Young
A satellite orbiting Earth.
A satellite orbiting Earth.

janiecbros/iStock 

Space scientists from the United States, China, Russia, and a number of other countries are collaborating despite geopolitical tensions between their countries.

They are teaming up to build networks of tiny satellites that will help to study some of the biggest existential threats to our planet, including climate change and cosmic radiation, a report from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reveals.

Facing existential threats together

Daniel Baker, a director and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the U.S., and leader of the project, said no country should fly solo in the face of existential threats to the planet.

“I’m excited that we not only get to do basic science but also address issues that are of real consequences to humans," Baker told SCMP. "This dual use of basic research and applied research is at the core of what the [satellite] constellations are about.”

Baker added that some of the satellites will go into orbit by 2025. They will be launched in constellations, allowing data to be combined to provide a bigger picture, as opposed to older CubeSat missions that would have one point of data.

“[The previous approach] led to uncertainty and ambiguity about whether the things we measure at that one particular point represent the characteristics of the whole system,” Baker explained. He also mentioned that the new mission was made possible due to advances in low-cost satellite launches, as well as innovations in smallsat technologies.

Working together despite "difficult geopolitical circumstances"

Each of the satellites will feature two or three instruments and will weigh as little as a few kilograms. The project is organized by the Committee on Space Research (Cospar) in Paris, which was formed in 1958 and maintains an open policy allowing scientists from any nation to take part. “Cospar provides a neutral platform for countries to work together in difficult geopolitical situations,” Wu Ji, a Beijing-based senior space scientist and member of the Cospar task group for the project, told SCMP.

Projects include one to study the radiation zone known as the Van Allen belts, which contain high-energy particles that can pose a danger to spacecraft and astronauts. In fact, the first mission to launch humans using SpaceX's Starship spacecraft, Polaris Dawn, will conduct a spacewalk in that same region.

Another project will focus on the middle atmosphere, to detect elements of the atmosphere, such as the ozone layer, in real-time.

In a speech addressing the Strategic Forum on Space Science in August, Roger Bonnet, former director of the European Space Agency’s scientific program, said he hopes Cospar will "help with the redirection of international space science opportunities in the context of war”.

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