New cereal box-sized satellite to explore alien planets


A new miniature satellite designed and built at CU Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) is providing proof that “cute” things can take on big scientific challenges.

The Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment (CUTE) is slated to launch into space Sept. 27. The approximately $4 million spacecraft, a smaller-than-usual type of satellite known as a “CubeSat,” is about as large as a “family-sized box of Cheerios,” said LASP researcher Kevin France, principal investigator for the mission.

But it has mighty goals: Over the course of about 7 months, the mission will track the volatile physics around a class of extremely hot planets orbiting stars far away from Earth. It’s the first CubeSat mission funded by NASA to peer at these distant worlds—marking a major test of what small spacecraft may be capable of.

“It’s an experiment that NASA is conducting to see how much science can be done with a small satellite,” said France, professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. “That’s exciting but also a little daunting.”

The mission will blast off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket alongside the Landsat 9 satellite from Vandenberg Space Force Base in Lompoc, California.

Once CUTE enters into orbit around Earth, it will set its sights on a suite of exoplanets called “hot Jupiters.” As their names suggest, these gaseous planets are both large and scalding hot, reaching temperatures of thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. The satellite’s findings will help scientists to better understand how these planets, and many others, evolve and even shrink over billions of years.

“Ultimately CUTE has one major purpose, and that is to study the inflated atmospheres of these really hot, pretty gassy exoplanets,” said Arika Egan, a graduate student at LASP who has helped to develop the mission. “The inflation and escape these exoplanetary atmospheres undergo are on scales just not seen in our own solar system.”

In recent years, LASP has led the development of multiple CubeSat missions to explore everything from the sun’s activity to supernovae in distant galaxies. Unlike larger space missions, which often net a price tag in the hundreds of millions of dollars, engineers can produce CubeSats on the cheap.

Science team members on the CUTE mission include researchers from the University of Leiden and University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, University of Arizona, Space Research Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the University of Toulouse in France. 

Read the full story online 

Daniel Strain, CU Boulder media relations

Kevin France

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