When the NROL-36 spy satellite takes off tomorrow, August 2, it will be accompanied to orbit by 11 small satellites, including CINEMA. The latter was put together by experts at the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).
CINEMA stands for CubeSat for Ions, Neutrals, Electrons, & MAgnetic fields. The spacecraft itself weighs a little over 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms), and is the product of a three-year project completed by 45 students at 5 universities around the world.
The purpose of the small-scale mission is to image the ring current, a flow of electricity around the planet that can knock out power grids following solar flares. Once international partners launch three more satellites, by 2013, experts will be able to monitor the ring current in 3D.
“This is a new way of doing space research, funded by the National Science Foundation with launch arranged by NASA. This is our first try, but if everything works, we’re going to get a lot of good science out of this.” CINEMA principal investigator Robert Lin explains.