Researchers from Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics
Laboratory, in conjunction with scientists from NASA
Goddard Space Flight Center and the U.S. Air Force Academy,
have developed a tiny analyzer to study depletions of
plasma — known as plasma bubbles — in the
ionosphere, a phenomenon that can disrupt satellite
The Flat Plasma Spectrometer, known as FlaPS, is one
of three experimental payloads onboard the Air Force
Academy's Falconsat-3 microsatellite that launched Thursday
night on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,
Fla. The six-month mission is demonstrating an improved
technology to help the Air Force better understand and
forecast plasma bubbles. Conceived by NASA GSFC and the Air
Force Academy, and designed and fabricated by APL, FlaPS
reduces a plasma spectrometer from the size of a coffee urn
to that of a teacup.
"We've aggressively miniaturized the instrument by
applying manufacturing techniques used in the
micro-electronics world to build personal computer
components," said Robert Osiander, APL's principal
investigator for the FlaPS program.
Although the instrument isn't unique in terms of its
science data, it is unique in terms of its size, which can
help reduce overall mission costs. Danielle Wesolek, APL's
technical lead for FlaPS, said, "We've applied
MicroElectroMechanical technology to reduce the
instrument's size by a factor of 100 while greatly
increasing its sensitivity and resolution, and dramatically
reducing weight and power requirements compared to
If you looked at the top of the device through an
electron-scanning microscope, you would see a tiny hole
smaller than the width of a human hair where particles
enter the spectrometer. As particles travel through the
electrostatic analyzer, or energy selector, they pass
through another opening so small that a human hair or piece
of dandruff would block it. The opening leads to a series
of tiny parallel plates that deflect the particles toward
the exit from this section of the analyzer. Only particles
of a selected bandwidth pass through and are collected.
Data is then downlinked to science teams on the ground
through Falconsat-3's mission operations center located at
the Air Force Academy.
The spectrometer's small size, low weight and power
consumption, and increased resolution make it ideal and
affordable for use in large numbers, and it could be
applied to other types of missions. "These spectrometers
could be advantageous for mapping missions, for example,
which require a large number of microsatellites to
simultaneously map multiple points in space," Osiander
said. "Where we once could only carry one spectrometer per
spacecraft, we can now carry dozens."
The multi-organizational team is already working on
the next-generation device known as WISPERS — for
Wafer-scale Integrated SPectrometERS — an instrument
suite created by the same micro-electronics-based
manufacturing techniques. "We're creating an entire suite
of instruments on a single wafer or chip, the platform on
which all integrated microcircuits are built," Osiander
said. "These instrument suites will greatly increase our
functionality within a much smaller area."
WISPERS is scheduled to fly on Falconsat-5, scheduled
for launch in fall 2009.
Falconsat-3 was one of six satellites launched aboard
a single rocket as part of the Defense Department's Space
Test Program-1 mission, the first Air Force mission to
launch aboard an Atlas V vehicle.