RadCube reaches out

Smartphone chips that are moved in orbit to monitor space weather

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The magnetic technology typically found in your smartphone or computer’s hard drive has been tested on a shoebox-sized satellite, used to help monitor space weather in Earth’s orbit. The “antiferromagnetic” magnetometer demonstrated by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) RadCube mission will now be designed on the Gateway station, which is scheduled to orbit the moon.

RadCube CubeSat

“We flew a pair of three-axis sensors using antiferromagnetic chips aboard the RadCube, one at the body of the nanosatellite and the other at the end of an 80cm-high arm developed by Astronica in Poland, allowing it to escape any magnetic noise from the RadCube itself,” explains Jonathan Eastwood of Imperial University of London in the UK.

Known as MAGIC, these sensors are an order of magnitude smaller than the conventional scientific magnetometers our team produces for ESA planetary missions such as the Solar Orbiter and Juice Mission to Jupiter, but still manage to reach the performance of the ESA group of space weather monitoring standards. The external sensor was triggered during the first six months of the RadCube’s orbital life while the internal sensor still returned data to this day.”

RadCube Arm Deployment Test

Magic Sensor

Space-ready magnetic chips

Antimagnetic chips are small, solid, mass-produced circuits for terrestrial markets, whose electrical resistance depends on the local magnetic field. They’re common inside smartphones for example, used to determine magnetic north to help the phone determine its orientation, and inside hard drive heads, from which they read magnetically etched computer memory.

Dr. Eastwood adds: “The classic Fluxgate magnetometer instruments we make for large-scale ESA missions are loops of magnetically sensitive material wrapped in wire, symmetrical in nature, yet capable of impressive magnetic measurements. However, magnetometers have identified These are minimal in size, mass, and power levels, and the electronics box that controls them is roughly the size of an entire RadCube nanosatellite.

“In contrast, the MAGIC sensor is based on antiferromagnetic chips that we simply bought over the counter and then boosted their performance for space. What we did was check the samples to make sure we chose the best chips for the sensor, while also designing custom control electronics to maximize its operational performance. The result is a miniature, low-cost sensor that can be airlifted on many different platforms, such as a small constellation of satellites that monitor space weather, or small landers on planets or asteroids.

RadCube during ground testing

Demonstration in orbit

“The final step was to test MAGIC’s performance in space, made possible by the ‘Fly’ component of the European Space Agency’s General Support Technology programme, which supports a wide range of microsatellites and CubeSats to give the European space sector abundant early opportunities – Orbital display of new space technology”.

CubeSats are satellites that are assembled from standard 10cm boxes. The RadCube is a 3-module CubeSat, launched in August 2021 on the European Space Agency’s Vega launcher. Tasked with demonstrating miniature payloads for space weather monitoring, he led its development for the European Space Agency C3S In Hungary who also introduced the new CubeSat platform, along with the country Energy Research Center Contribute to payload control and radio telescope. A team from ESA contributed the latest in the Chimera family of payloads, testing space-ready computer components.

Dr. Eastwood notes: “We recognized that MAGIC was a good fit for the RadCube mission, and british space agency You agreed to fund us via GSTP. The energetic particles measured by the rest of the RadCube payload orbit around and along Earth’s magnetic field lines to the CubeSat’s orbit, so having the magnetic field measurements puts these radiation measurements in context, giving a much better overall picture of what’s going on. “

Space weather on a planetary scale

space safety test

The European Space Agency’s Space Safety Program is driving the development of operational space weather monitoring, because solar wind-driven disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field can have diverse impacts on Earth and space infrastructure, including satellites in orbit and communications and energy lines on Earth. In 1989, the famous Canadian province of Quebec suffered an extended blackout after elements of the power grid were affected by induced currents.

“We have taken the European Space Agency (ESA) standard for space weather monitoring and used it to determine our operational requirements, and the good news is that MAGIC has met them,” Dr. Eastwood comments. “We also had the opportunity to compare the MAGIC data with that of one of our conventional magnetometers when the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter returned to Earth’s vicinity during its flyby, helping it on its way into the inner Solar System.

Solar orbiter hovering over Earth

“We have also done a cross-comparison with the European Space Agency’s Swarm magnetic field measurement satellites, and look at how magnetoresistance sensors can be used in the future to extend the reach of Swarm measurements.”

Tropical extremism

The external sensor stopped working earlier this year, possibly due to the extreme temperatures seen at the end of the boom throughout RadCube’s low Earth orbit, with shifts from day to night every 90 minutes that include thermal cycling of up to 100 degrees Celsius. Knowledge of failure guides design of future MAGIC iterations. The internal sensor remains operational, even though the RadCube’s own magnetic environment dominates its measurements, when artificial magnetic field sources such as the reaction wheels of the attitude control system act.

RadCube launch

“We are increasingly confident in the ability of the internal sensor to usefully measure external geomagnetic events,” adds Dr. Eastwood. “RadCube’s operations have been adapted to move the satellite as quietly magnetic as possible when the magnetometer is turned on to reduce noise, and it may also be possible to apply machine learning to clean its data to get to the external differences. More interested in it.”

Roger Walker, ESA’s CubeSats Technology Supervisor adds: “It’s a real advantage for in-orbit demonstrations on relatively fast and cheap missions using CubeSat platforms that researchers get to try out new technologies before they are put into practice in a major major mission, where the stakes are as low as possible. possible.”


Magnetic Moon exploration

Now that MAGIC has been demonstrated in low Earth orbit, the same sensor will be directed into lunar space as part of the European array of radiation sensors, A “space weather station” supported by the European Space Agency Gateway station in lunar orbit.

Jonathan Eastwood explains: “The gate itself will be a magnetically noisy environment, but we should be able to detect the weaker magnetic signature of the solar wind and the deep ‘magnetic tail’ of Earth’s magnetic field, through which the station will pass once a month, to help assess the safety of its crews’ tropical environment. Humanity “.

General Support Technology Program

ESA’s optional GSTP works with European industry to develop new technologies to the point where they are space and open market ready. At the ESA Council of Ministers in November of this year, cm 22the agency will propose to extend the comprehensive system of trade preferences to support European competitiveness and independence.

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