Radio Aurora Explorer: Mission science and radar system

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Abstract

[1] The Radio Aurora Explorer (RAX) satellite is the first of several satellites funded under the NSF CubeSat-based Space Weather and Atmospheric Research Program. RAX is a ground-to-space bi-static radar remote sensing experiment designed to measure and understand the causes of meter-scale ionospheric irregularities. Also known as field-aligned irregularities (FAI), such non-thermal, coherent fluctuations of electron density occur in response to strong ionospheric flows or plasma density gradients during geomagnetic disturbances and are considered a space weather concern due to disruption to communication and navigation signals. The RAX CubeSat was launched in November 2010 and conducted a single experiment in coordination with the Poker Flat Incoherent Scatter Radar. Due to geophysical inactivity, e.g., lack of strong ionospheric electric fields and low ionospheric densities, no FAI were expected or observed. However, the radar receiver payload operation was successfully demonstrated, including the capability to sense signals as low as −110 dBm, the capability of transmitter–receiver synchronization and accurate ranging, processing of 1.2 GB of raw radar data on board in less than 1 hour, and the downlink of the science results within three–four passes. Analysis of the payload data shows that the noise level is sufficiently low. Although the interference level is a concern, it does not appear to significantly limit the measurements. Toward the end of December 2010, the solar power system gradually degraded and the mission terminated in early February 2011 after prolonged loss of contact with the satellite. Meanwhile, RAX II was launched in October 2011 to a polar orbit. This paper describes the RAX science and radar system and presents the results from the first experiment conducted.

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