Firestation Operating and Returning Data

The NASA Firestation instrument has been installed on the ISS and is returning data.

Firestation will study the link between lightning and TGFs, and hopefully shed some light on the theory of Dark Lightning. Other questions to be answered are whether lightning triggers TGFs or whether TGFs trigger lightning and are TGFs responsible for some of the high-energy particles in the Van Allen belts.

Firestation was built primarily from spare pieces of the Firefly project, which was a Cubesat project that was modified with a with a redesigned housing for use on the ISS. There are three sets of sensors aboard Firestation, combined in two instruments.

The prime instrument is the Gamma-Ray Detector instrument (GDR). The GRD will measure the energy and time-of-arrival of incoming X-ray and gamma-ray photons associated with TGFs. The same instrument will also be able to detect energetic electrons in the hundreds of keV to few MeV range, to look for the relativistic electrons which are responsible for the gamma-ray emissions.

The other instrument is the VLF receiver / photometer experiment (VP). This experiment will combine multiple sensors to measure both the Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio waves emitted by lightning in the tens of Hz to tens of kHz range, and the optical emissions from lightning at high time resolution. These measurements will serve both to corroborate the occurrence of lightning when enhanced gamma-ray or electron fluxes are observed, as well as to help locate the parent lightning and determine some of its characteristics such as intensity, polarity, etc.

The Firestation sensors operate over a wider measurement range than Firefly. Firestation will also make use of a camera, also onboard the instrument pallet, to photograph lightning flashes so that the scientists can derive a precise location of their incidence. Firestation’s data rate is about 3,000 times larger than Firefly’s, so that the research team will be able to sample every lightning stroke, not just Firefly’s carefully selected sample.

But, the biggest advantage is in mission duration. Firefly is expected to remain in low-Earth orbit for roughly a month, while Firestation will have a one-year mission flying on the ISS. Rowland says, “This represents orders of magnitude better coverage.”

While no details have been published on the VLF receiver used in Firestation, it’s probably safe to assume that it is the same or a very similar receiver to the one in the Firefly Cubesat. This receiver was developed by Professor Allan Weatherwax and his team of students at Siena College which  measures single-axis electric fields in the 100 Hz. to 1 mHz. range.

The video below provides a good summary of the project. I was planning on posting links to some of the other information, but most of the NASA sites are down due to the inability of our congress to do its job. I’ll post the links when the situation is resolved.

Radiation Belt Storm Probe Records Chorus In Van Allen Belts

RBSPThe Radiation Belt Storm Probes that were launched on August 30, 2012, are nearing the completion of their 60-day commissioning period before beginning their prime mission. Nonetheless, interesting and useful data are being returned by the probes.

One of the instruments on these probes is the Electric and Magnetic Field Instrument Suite and Integrated Science (EMFISIS). This instrument is being managed by the University of Iowa Radio and Plasma Wave Group with Craig Kletzing being the principal investigator. The University of Iowa has a long history of involvement with the study of the magnetosphere, and was the home to Dr. James Van Allen who discovered the Van Allen Belts that RBSP is now probing.

EMFISIS monitors magnetic fields and plasma waves with three solenoids, oriented as if they were the 90-degree angles at the corner of a cube. Experiments in the past have only been able to monitor such waves in a single direction, but EMFISIS will measure E and H field components in all three directions as it also incorporates the electric field information gathered by the booms on the Electric Field and Wave Suite (EFW) instrument.

In essence, it’s a sophisticated Natural Radio receiver located within the radiation belts, far away from power-line interference and right near the source of the signals. These recordings are exceptionally clear for these reasons, plus the fact that the recordings are being made at 16-bit resolution, which was never done before within the radiation belts. Listen to the clarity of these first recordings! Here is a recording of chorus:

Chorus as recorded by Radiation Belt Storm Probe

This is a whistler recorded from within the Van Allen Belts:

RBSP Recording of a Whistler

Both of these recordings are courtesy of NASA and the University of Iowa Radio and Plasma Wave Group. For more space sounds, you might want to check out Prof. Don Gurnett’s site at the University of Iowa:

NASA’s RBSP was designed to help us understand the sun’s influence on Earth and near-Earth space by studying the Earth’s radiation belts on various scales of space and time.

The two RBSP spacecraft have nearly identical eccentric orbits and identical instrumentation. The orbits cover the entire radiation belt region and the two spacecraft lap each other several times over the course of the mission. With a spaced pair of satellites, RBSP can discriminate between spatial and temporal effects, and compare the effects of various proposed mechanisms for charged particle acceleration and loss.

Here are links to the mission pages for the RBSP:

Radiation Storm Belt Probes Successfully Launched

The Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) which were launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 30, 2012. After a successful launch, the probes were released from the upper stage of the Centaur rocket one at a time, and sent off into their different orbits, beginning the two-year mission to study Earth’s radiation belts.