Posted on March 5th, 2024

Out of This World – Building Better Climate Models with PREFIRE

Last month, we looked deeper into Japan’s SLIM spacecraft moon-landing adventures. This time, we’re getting to know NASA’s twin tiny satellites launching into space this spring. The goal of the shoebox-sized cube satellites is to unravel the mystery of heat loss from Earth’s polar regions for the first time, resulting in more accurate climate models.

In May, PREFIRE, short for Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment, will launch two cube satellites, also known as CubeSats, into Earth’s atmosphere. The mission will provide new data on various climate variables, such as surface properties, atmospheric temperature, clouds, and water vapor. PREFIRE is a collaboration between NASA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and team members from the Universities of Michigan and Colorado.

Two CubeSats for the PREFIRE Mission will measure how much heat is absorbed and emitted from the Earth’s polar regions. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The CubeSats will launch two weeks apart and will be equipped with a thermal infrared spectrometer. The equipment was designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and includes mirrors of a specific shape with detectors meant to split and measure infrared light. This is similar to the technology used by the Mars Climate Sounder on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The PREFIRE engineering team developed a scaled-down version that weighs less than 6 pounds and captures readings using a thermocouple.

To ensure the maximum amount of coverage, the satellites will zoom along Earth’s orbit on different paths, and the paths will overlap every few hours near the North and South poles. The Earth’s polar regions are extremely important to balance incoming and outgoing energy. The difference between the two energies determines our planet’s temperature and helps to influence our climate. Brian Dourin, scientist and deputy principal investigator for PREFIRE, says the mission will help close the gap and help scientists develop more accurate climate models.

He stated that PREFIRE has the, “potential to discover some fundamental things about how our planet works.” Dourin also explained that our knowledge of how efficiently radiation is emitted into space through the North and South Poles is incomplete. The importance of that radiation hasn’t been at the forefront until now and PREFIRE plans to measure it.

Tristan L’Ecuyer, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the mission’s principal investigator, explained changing the polar regions would fundamentally change the weather around the world. Climate models help scientists project and understand these changes, and the PREFIRE mission will give scientists new data that will help improve the accuracy of these climate models.

The mission is sure to gather vast amounts of important data that will help NASA and other scientists understand the world in a much deeper way.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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