HomeDisastersNASA's PREFIRE Mission: Studying Earth's Heat Emissions from the Poles

NASA’s PREFIRE Mission: Studying Earth’s Heat Emissions from the Poles

NASA’s PREFIRE (Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment) mission has successfully launched the first of two climate satellites designed to study heat emissions from Earth’s polar regions. The satellite lifted off on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from Launch Complex 1 in Māhia, New Zealand, at 7:41 p.m. NZST (3:41 a.m. EDT) on Saturday.

PREFIRE Mission Overview

The PREFIRE mission consists of two CubeSats, each the size of a shoebox, tasked with measuring the amount of heat radiated from Earth’s poles into space. These CubeSats will provide critical data to help researchers predict changes in Earth’s ice, seas, and weather patterns in a warming world. The mission aims to fill a significant gap in our understanding of how the polar regions influence the planet’s energy budget — the balance between incoming solar energy and outgoing heat energy.

At the core of the PREFIRE mission is the study of Earth’s energy budget. Understanding this balance is essential for predicting the planet’s temperature and climate changes. The far-infrared radiation emitted from the Arctic and Antarctica plays a crucial role in this balance, yet it has been inadequately measured until now.

The CubeSats are equipped with thermal infrared spectrometers, which utilize specially shaped mirrors and sensors to measure infrared wavelengths. These instruments were miniaturized to fit on the CubeSats, an effort that required significant technological innovation.

Importance of the Mission

“NASA’s innovative PREFIRE mission will fill a gap in our understanding of the Earth system,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division. “This mission will improve the prediction of sea ice loss, ice sheet melt, and sea level rise, providing crucial information to various sectors, including agriculture, fishing, and coastal community planning.”

The data collected by PREFIRE will enhance climate and weather models, helping scientists understand the fundamentals of Earth’s heat balance. “Their observations will help us better predict how our ice, seas, and weather will change in the face of global warming,” added Laurie Leshin, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Collaboration and Future Prospects

The PREFIRE mission is a collaborative effort between NASA and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the mission and provided the spectrometers, while Blue Canyon Technologies built the CubeSats. The University of Wisconsin-Madison will process the data collected. Rocket Lab USA Inc. of Long Beach, California, provided the launch services.

Following the successful launch and communication establishment with the first CubeSat, the second PREFIRE CubeSat is set to launch in the coming days. After a 30-day checkout period to ensure both CubeSats are functioning correctly, the mission will operate for approximately 10 months.

Broader Impact

This mission comes at a time when rapid changes in the Arctic are creating unprecedented challenges. “NASA’s PREFIRE will give us new measurements of the far-infrared wavelengths being emitted from Earth’s poles,” said Tristan L’Ecuyer, PREFIRE’s principal investigator. “We can use this data to improve climate and weather models and help people around the world deal with the consequences of climate change.”

The PREFIRE mission is part of NASA’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract, provided by the agency’s Launch Services Program in partnership with NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder Program.

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