Move over, Elon Musk: Scientists at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) have big plans for studying small stars.

In 2021, a spacecraft the size of a cereal box will carry a telescope into orbit to assess whether so-called M dwarfs—stars 20 times dimmer than the sun—are capable of supporting life on orbiting planets.

The NASA-funded Star-Planet Activity Research CubeSat (SPARCS) measures just 3.6 inches in diameter, and features a camera and two ultraviolet-sensitive detectors. The system—complete with operational and science software—measures very small changes in the brightness of M dwarf stars.

“This is a mission to the borderland of astrophysics and astrobiology,” Evgenya Shkolnik, assistant professor in SESE and principal investigator for the SPARCS mission, said in a statement. “We’re going to study the habitability and high-energy environment around stars that we call M dwarfs.”

Despite their scanty stature and arctic atmosphere, red dwarfs are more active than the sun, shooting powerful radiation into space. Just how active, however, remains a mystery—one that SPARCS and ASU hope to solve.

Why funnel time and money into a new spacecraft, though, when the already-orbiting Hubble telescope can view stars at ultraviolet wavelengths?

The famous scope boasts an “overcrowded observing schedule,” according to the University, and can dedicate “only the briefest of efforts” to M dwarfs.

“Hubble provides us with lots of detail on a few stars over a short time. But for understanding their activity we need long looks at many stars instead of snapshots of a few,” Shkolnik said.

Enter SPARCS, built of six cubical units with solar panels extending like wings from one end.

“We’ll have limited radio communications with SPARCS, so we plan to do quite a bit of data processing on board using the central computer,” SESE astronomer Daniel Jacobs said. “We’ll be writing that software here at ASU, using a prototype of the spacecraft and camera to test our code.”

After launch, the team will connect to SPARCS via a global ground station network.

Joining ASU in the mission are scientists from the University of Washington, the University of Arizona, Lowell Observatory, the SouthWest Research Institute, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“The SPARCS mission will show how, with the right technology, small space telescopes can answer big science questions,” Shkolnik said.

The latest SESE offering follows in the footsteps of the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), expected for arrival on asteroid Bennu in August.

Researchers are also working on the Phoenix CubeSat (to study local climate effects on cities on Earth), LunaH-Map (to measure lunar hydrogen as a proxy for water), the Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (to seek temperature anomalies on Jupiter’s moon Europa), the Lucy Thermal Emission Spectrometer (to measure surface properties among Jupiter’s family of trojan asteroids), and Psyche (a mission to study an asteroid made wholly of nickel and iron).




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