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Two tiny NASA satellites are launching to study Earth’s poles

The first of two CubeSats for the PREFIRE mission sits on a launch pad in Māhia, New Zealand, shortly before launching on May 25, 2024 at 7:41 p.m. NZST (3:41 a.m. EDT).
A CubeSat satellite sits on a launch pad in Māhia, New Zealand, shortly before launching on May 25, 2024. Rocket Lab

This weekend will be a busy time for rocket launches. Not only will NASA be attempting the first crewed launch of the Boeing Starliner, which is currently scheduled for Saturday, June 1, following a series of delays, but there will also be the second of a two-part launch of a new mission called PREFIRE (Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment).

While people often think of NASA as an agency that is interested in looking outward from Earth into space, it also runs a whole raft of missions that are about looking back at Earth from space. These missions typically feature Earth-orbiting satellites that are used to collect data on things like sea levels, atmospheric temperatures, the status of rivers and lakes, and more. And now, they will be joined by the PREFIRE mission that will study how heat is lost from the planet’s poles.

“NASA’s innovative PREFIRE mission will fill a gap in our understanding of the Earth system, providing our scientists a detailed picture of how Earth’s polar regions influence how much energy our planet absorbs and releases,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, in a statement. “This will improve prediction of sea ice loss, ice sheet melt, and sea level rise, creating a better understanding of how our planet’s system will change in the coming years — crucial information to farmers tracking changes in weather and water, fishing fleets working in changing seas, and coastal communities building resilience.”

The missions consists of two small satellites called CubeSats, each of which has an instrument called a thermal infrared spectrometer that will show heat being emitted from the poles. The first of these satellites was launched last Saturday, May 25, and the second is to be launched this Saturday, June 1. Both launches will use a Rocket Lab Electron rocket to carry the satellite to orbit. Like the first CubeSat, the second will launch from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in Māhia, New Zealand.

In typical Rocket Lab style, the two launches have been given fun cod names. Last Saturday’s was “Ready, Aim, PREFIRE” and this Saturday’s is  “PREFIRE and Ice.” If you’d like to catch up on last week’s launch, video is available on Rocket Lab’s YouTube page. The company will also provide a livestream of the upcoming launch on its website.

Rocket Lab - 'Ready, Aim, PREFIRE' Launch

Communications with the first CubeSat have already been established, so once the second has been launched, there will be a 30-day period to check that everything is working correctly before the pair begin their science operations.

“The PREFIRE CubeSats may be small, but they’re going to close a big gap in our knowledge about Earth’s energy budget,” said Laurie Leshin, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Their observations will help us understand the fundamentals of Earth’s heat balance, allowing us to better predict how our ice, seas, and weather will change in the face of global warming.”

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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