A NASA rocket deployed from the Vandenberg Space Force Base situated in California with a first-of-its-kind satellite conceived and constructed by Boston University engineers. The shoebox-size satellite with an X-ray telescope will record images of where the Earth’s and sun’s magnetic fields intersect in space for the next 5 to 6 years in orbit, around 340 miles above the planet’s surface.
The CuPID satellite, which translates to Cusp Plasma Imaging Detector, is planned to acquire images that will aid scientists in their understanding of how solar energy is transmitted into the close-Earth space environment. Brian Walsh, a mechanical engineering professor from BU College of Engineering, headed the team that developed the satellite, which was funded by a $2.4 million, 4-year NASA contract. The project includes partners from NASA’s Johns Hopkins University, Drexel University, Goddard Space Flight Center, and Merrimack College, in addition to BU engineers.
“It’s not every day the hardware you’ve been working on for 4 years, the software you’ve built, the computer you’ve been talking to every day is closed up in the launch vehicle and heading somewhere you’ll never see it again,” Emil Atz, who is a BU graduate student in Walsh’s lab, says. “It’s a bittersweet situation… I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when we establish contact with CuPID during launch or even during the first pass [in orbit]. “I’m sure I’ll cry.”
CuPID’s launch date was pushed back multiple times owing to weather and other schedule conflicts—possibly by chance. Atz explains, “The launch was originally planned to occur on [my] wedding day.” “I asked the launch supplier if they could reschedule the launch or locate a suitable stand-in for me at a wedding, but he stated neither was likely. Luckily for me—and my gorgeous wife—the launch had to be postponed [until September 27], but sadly for the launch provider.”
For studying Earth and space phenomena, X-ray imaging is not really a new technology. Previous orbiting telescopes, on the other hand, were constrained by their range of vision and had to capture photos of particular areas one by one. CuPID is the first satellite of its kind to have a large field of view, allowing scientists to examine the magnetic field boundary between the sun and the Earth using far larger, more thorough images.
“CuPID will see the unseen,” Walsh claims. “A process known as magnetic reconnection has been investigated by scientists for decades.” Electrons are swapped and X-rays are emitted when charged particles from the sun clash with the Earth’s atmosphere. Charged particles can escape into the Earth’s atmosphere during periods of intense solar activity, placing satellites and astronauts in danger.