The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) selected small satellite manufacturer and mission services provider Blue Canyon Technologies (BCT) to support a combined initiative between the U.S. Department of the Navy and the UK Ministry of Defence for a demonstration mission called CIRCE.
CIRCE, which stands for Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment, will utilize two 6U CubeSats flying in tandem formation in low-Earth orbit (LEO) to measure the ionosphere and radiation environment space from multiple vantage points. The twin 6U CubeSats will be flying at 600 km altitude in a lead/trail formation 300-500 km apart in the same orbit plane.
The satellite payload includes five low size, weight, and power (SWaP) insitu and remote space environment sensors. NRL will provide two ultraviolet photometers per satellite to measure the naturally occurring airglow and determine the ionospheric structure. The UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, or Dstl, will provide the remaining three payloads per satellite. DSTL’s payload system, known as IRIS, is a combination of three payloads that include a topside GPS receiver to measure electron densities and content, an ion and neutral mass spectrometer and a compact radiation sensor.
The BCT-built CubeSats will also have a low-latency data link to enable operational responsiveness.
CIRCE is scheduled to launch in March of 2020. A successful demonstration will provide key insights to the radiation environment, density and composition in the space environment. CIRCE will also provide risk reduction for advanced ionospheric sensing techniques planned for future mission concepts, including Persistent Volumetric Ionospheric Sensing of Targeted Areas (Persistent VISTA). CIRCE can also provide low-latency space weather data suitable for use in operational model.
“The ionosphere, an upper layer of the atmosphere extending from a height of about 50 km to about 1000 km above the earth, acts as a shield around the earth. “The structure and density of the ionosphere can vary quite a bit, day-to-day, depending on what the Sun is doing. Since space weather affects satellite communications and radar, a thorough understanding of the environment is essential to commonly used satellite infrastructure like GPS and communications systems. These low-cost, compact satellites will demonstrate advanced methods for understanding the space environment to benefit systems and users that depend on a reliable space infrastructure”, said Matt Pallas, CIRCE Program Manager at Blue Canyon Technologies.
Blue Canyon’s diverse spacecraft platform has the proven capability to enable a broad range of missions and technological advances for the New Space economy, further reducing the barriers of space entry. BCT is currently building more than 60 spacecraft for government, commercial and academic missions. The company has doubled in size over the past 12 months and plans to open its new 80,000-square-foot headquarters and production facility in 2020.