Czech scientists develop miniature “weather station” for space
Czech scientists have developed a small weather station for space. The gadget tracks streams of charged particles moving in space and the first is already in orbit.
Differently charged particles, which scientists call “space weather”, stream through space. They are described as “solar wind” or “electro-magnetic storms”. Most of them don't reach Earth because it is protected by a magnetic “umbrella”. But on a spacecraft outside of the Earth's magnetic field, the particles can do similar damage as lightning or hail on Earth and can be dangerous not only for astronauts, but also for the electronics on spaceships.
The “weather station”, or detector named Hardpix, is about the size of a tiny camera and fits in the palm of your hand. Milan Malich from the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics at the Czech Technical University explains:
“Our goal was to develop a device that would be as compact as possible. The current version weighs around 150 grams. Most of that weight is the protective aluminum box, the electron itself is very light. It's basically like the camera in your mobile, but this is designed to detect particles."
Scientists need to monitor the situation in space in longer cycles so as to know how “solar weather” behaves. The Hardpix detector is small and simple enough for mass production and can be mounted on any type of satellite. Physicist Robert Filgas says that is very important.
“It can be used not only on large satellites, but also on those tiny 10x10x10 cm CubeSats. These don't have much electrical power, so we needed to develop something that was small, lightweight and wouldn’t consume much. Once work on a satellite begins, everything, including dimensions and weight, is already budgeted. They don't like to add anything at a later stage, because it would mean reworking the plans. Our detector consumes two or three watts, weighs around 100 grams and can be attached on the outside of virtually anything, even at a later stage when the satellite has already been constructed.”
The Hardpix detector works like a small camera. What it photographs, however, is not the invisible space weather particles themselves, but only their traces. It is like when planes in the sky leave a line of condensed steam behind them. Milan Malich explains.
"When a particle hits the detector at a certain angle and flies though it, it creates a trail. We call them “treks”. By its trajectory, “thickness” and a number of other attributes, you can tell with a high degree of probability what kind of particle it is."
The first Hardpix detector is already in orbit and has been providing data to scientists since September.
It was carried into orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket aboard the ION satellite of the Italian company D-ORBIT where it is monitoring the “space weather” for the British Science and Technology Facilities Council.
Hardpix is not the first such detector created by Czech scientists. The first such gadget has been in orbit for many years and is still operational. Robert Filgas:
"We built the Hardpix on the basis of experience gained from its predecessor called SATRAM, which has been operating in space for over 10 years. It is on a satellite of the European Space Agency called PROBA-V and the fact that it has been in constant operation is a huge success."
The Hardpix detectors should serve on the International Space Station (ISS), as well as on the planned Gateway Station, which will orbit the Moon.