Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Siena Chosen as a Leader for NSF Firefly CubeSat Mission

Mission will Study Lightning's Link to Terrestrial Gamma Ray Flashes

Loudonville, N.Y. – Siena College and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center were jointly awarded a $1 million National Science Foundation grant to lead a new satellite mission, called “Firefly” that will explore the elusive link between lightning and sudden bursts of high-energy radiation in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Firefly, led by Doug Rowland, Ph.D., at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Allan Weatherwax, Ph.D., at Siena College, was chosen by the NSF as its second CubeSat mission. A CubeSat satellite, about the size of a loaf of bread, consists of three cubes attached end to end in a rectangular shape. The Firefly CubeSat is designed to investigate these sudden bursts, called Terrestrial Gamma Ray Flashes (TGFs).

TGFs were first discovered by NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. These very energetic bursts of gamma radiation, generated in Earth's upper atmosphere, are thought to be associated with lightning. TGFs are likely produced by beams of electrons, which are accelerated in the intense electric fields generated by large thunderstorm systems. "These particle beams are very energetic and understanding the physical mechanism producing them could shed light on processes that occur on the sun, other planets, or in more exotic astrophysical environments such as black holes,” said Weatherwax, co-principal investigator for the Firefly mission and a professor of physics at Siena College.

Firefly will explore the link between TGFs and lightning, and is designed to determine which types of lightning produce these electron beams and associated TGFs. In addition, Firefly will explore the occurrence rate of weaker TGFs, thereby providing information about the effect that the millions of lightning flashes that occur worldwide each day have on the Earth's upper atmosphere and near-Earth space environment.

As a CubeSat, Firefly will accomplish this focused science mission in a much smaller package than typical. Because it is so small, it is much cheaper and easier to launch than other satellites. At Siena, undergraduate students will work on all aspects of the project together with Weatherwax and lead payload engineer, Mr. Joe Kujawski.

“This is an exciting opportunity for our students. They will learn what it takes to design, build, and launch a satellite.” Weatherwax said.

Firefly's launch date is likely to be in 2010 or 2011, and it will ride as a secondary payload attached to a larger primary vehicle that has excess lift capacity. The NSF CubeSat program represents a new low cost access to space system for performing high-quality, targeted science on a low budget. Larger satellite projects typically involve much larger groups working for five to 20 years.

Firefly is funded and managed by the National Science Foundation, and will be developed as a collaborative effort by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Siena College in Loudonville, NY; Universities Space Research Association, Columbia, Md.; and the Hawk Institute for Space Sciences, Pocomoke City, Md. For more information, go to the Firefly website at http://firefly.gsfc.nasa.gov/.

Links to the NSF and NASA releases:

Images: Top Right- The Firefly logo (patch) was designed by Katherine Levinson, an undergraduate creative arts major at Siena College.
Middle Left: An artist’s conception of the Firefly satellite, positioned above a thunderstorm, observing a gamma-ray burst. The image is courtesy of the Universities Space Research Association.

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