Last May, NASA launched a small, bread loaf-sized satellite into orbit around Earth. Dubbed IceCube, the satellite's mission was to measure cloud ice in our planet's atmosphere -- a challenging task that researchers have previously only been able to perform in limited ways. Sensing ice clouds requires measurements at a range of frequency bands but particularly within what are known as submillimeter wavelengths, or electromagnetic wavelengths that fall in between those of microwave and infrared waves. The problem is, instruments that can take those kinds of measurements have previously had to be on board high-altitude research aircraft, meaning measurements were limited to the areas where those aircraft were flying. Launching a satellite that can perform those measurements could open up what parts of the atmosphere can be studied, and that's where IceCube comes in.
IceCube was developed in partnership with Virginia Diodes Inc. and was done in a relatively short amount of time on a comparatively low budget. And the main goal was to be able to show that this type of project could produce a useful piece of equipment. "This is a different mission model for NASA," said Dong Wu, one of the researchers on the IceCube team. "Our principal goal was to show this small mission could be done. The question was, could we can get useful science and advance space technology with a low-cost CubeSat developed under an effective government-commercial partnership." In that regard, the mission appears to be a success, and as a bonus, researchers now have the first map of global atmospheric ice distribution. This will help scientists study cloud ice and how it affects our planet's climate and will allow for better weather and climate models. "With IceCube, scientists now have a working submillimeter radiometer system in space at a commercial price," said Wu. "More importantly, it provides a global view on Earth's cloud-ice distribution."