"We care about this because the belts' high-energy particles, particularly the electrons, pose a real risk to spacecraft," says Harlan Spence, UNH principal investigator for the FIREBIRD II mission.
"So if we understand these physical processes better, we'll be able to predict how the radiation belts will behave and both protect the satellites we depend upon for telecommunications, weather monitoring and prediction, etcetera, and design them to withstand this high-energy radiation."
FIREBIRD II is a follow-on to the inaugural 2013 FIREBIRD mission, which according to Spence
provided the best quality microburst data of its kind to date "despite the size of the spacecraft."
With improvements made in the wake of the first mission, including more robust software and power systems, FIREBIRD II is anticipated to provide the very first characterization of the spatial scale of microbursts, without which scientists won't fully understand the global consequences of the loss of energetic particles to Earth's atmosphere.
Moreover, greatly expanding the science, other measurements will be made in the radiation belt environment by separate missions occurring in tandem with FIREBIRD II, including NASA's Van Allen Probes mission, on which Spence is a principal investigator, and NASA's upcoming Magnetospheric Multiscale mission that will carry critical, UNH-built components.
, "We are starting to look in the key energy range of interest between what we see with the FIREBIRD nanosatellites and what we see with the Van Allen Probes, and from those comparisons we can start learning about the physics of how particles are lost from the radiation belts to the atmosphere."