An Aerospace team has developed a forward-looking and highly cost-effective method for making this distinction in real time by monitoring the radiation environment around satellites in low Earth orbit.
The team developed a space-grade, miniaturized version of a dosimeter – a device used to monitor and measure radiation. Beginning in 2017, these dosimeters were launched on board commercial satellites to measure the radiation associated with space weather in orbit. The project, Responsive Environmental Assessment Commercially Hosted, or REACH, serves as a groundbreaking proof-of-concept for the future of satellite situational awareness.
Data Helps to Determine Space Threat
REACH, commissioned by the Air Force SMC Development Corps, began with six dosimeter payloads and has since expanded to 29 currently on orbit with three more on the way for an eventual total of 32. “We couldn’t pass up this opportunity,” said Dr. Joseph Mazur, REACH’s principal investigator. “No one has ever had this many point measurements of the radiation environment in space.”
The data collected from REACH improves situational awareness for satellite operators by providing global coverage of the radiation environment in near real time. If electronics on board a satellite malfunction, operators can use REACH data to determine quickly if space weather is to blame, and to rule out hacking or other anti-satellite attacks from hostile actors.
REACH is Faster and More Cost-Effective
While space dosimetry has been studied for some time, Aerospace’s innovative approach allows for more data to be collected in a shorter amount of time at a fraction of the cost of previous methods.
The project’s efficiency lies in its use of existing infrastructure. The devices are hosted on board commercial telecommunications satellites and radiation data is relayed directly through the host’s existing network of ground stations, allowing for more frequent transmissions.
According to Mazur, this operational design saves both time and money. Compared to the alternative — launching a single satellite with the sole purpose of measuring radiation — the REACH network achieves 20 times the coverage, 10 times faster, at 10% of the cost.
Technology to be Used in Space Radiation Detection
The success of REACH has demonstrated the viability of sensor payloads aboard commercial satellites. Mazur and his team are currently developing energetic charged particle (ECP) sensors for payloads on future Air Force missions that will also include the dosimeters used in REACH as well as other compact sensors for even more perceptive detection of space weather effects.
REACH technology could extend beyond its current use for situational awareness because of the volume of measurements available. Data could be used to improve radiation resilience in future satellites and could even be used to study the effects of radiation on airline crews and passengers.
For now, however, Mazur believes that REACH represents a significant turning point in satellite operations. “Typical vehicles didn't have any measure of what the radiation environment was and that's been a longstanding problem. It's a quest that we've been on for more than 30 years,” Mazur said. “There’s no substitute for real-time coverage.”