Scientists use nanosatellites to upload data from climate change research at the North Pole

The German research ship and icebreaker Polarstern left Tromso, Norway, in September to start a yearlong voyage into polar ice. Now the research team has a first-of-its-kind satellite communication network for sending back data and discoveries.

Key Environmental Monitoring for Polar Latitudes and European Readiness (Kepler) launched the communications satellites to provide a data link for scientists on the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC). The Polarstern will enter an ice floe and  and establish research outposts on surrounding ice sheets to study climate change at the North Pole.

The Alfred Wegener Institute is leading the MOSAiC collaboration that includes 600 researchers and 19 countries.   Kepler said it had to establish its own communications network because the research vessel will be well outside the range of traditional high-throughput satellites. The two nanosatellites provide 100x higher data speeds that would not be possible otherwise, Kepler said. With this improved data transfer capability, scientists can share large data files between ship and shore.

"Our Global Data Service provides a cost-effective means to transfer large data volumes that will be gathered over the course of MOSAiC," said Mina Mitry, CEO at Kepler, in a press release. "Rather than only storing data locally and analyzing once physical storage can be sent back with supply vessels, we are giving scientists the ability to continuously transfer test and housekeeping data sets over our unique LEO satellite network."

The communication network uses nanosatellites to create the data link between scientists on the research vessel and the team back at home base. Nanosatellites are cheaper than traditional satellites and require six to eight months to build as compared to the years required for traditional satellites.

CubeSats are one type of nanosatellite that measures 10x10x10 centimeters with a mass  between 1 and 1.33 kg. Individual units are combined to form larger units. Traditional satellites start at 500 kilograms and go up to more than 1,000 kilograms.

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Nanosatellites are launched in low orbit and circle the earth between 14 and 16 times per day. When they reach the end of their lifecycle, they drop out of orbit and disintegrate in Earth's atmosphere. Nanosatellites are key to Internet of Things networks as well as earth observation, geolocation, and scientific applications.

According to NanoStats, there are 1,251 nanosatellites in orbit as of Oct. 31, 2019, and predictions for 3,000 of the small satellites to be launched in the next six years.

The MOSAiC expedition

The research team will establish a network of observational sites on the sea ice. The ship and the surrounding network will drift with the natural ice drift across the polar cap toward the Atlantic.

The logistics for this trip are almost as complex as the science. A landing strip for resupply flights will be carved out the sea ice. At least six people will be on polar bear watch. The Polarstern will cover about 2,500 kilometers at an average speed of 7 kilometers a day.

About 600 researchers will be on board during the course of the mission with different groups coming and going throughout the year. A support staff of 300 people will work in the background to make the expedition possible.

The project's budget is 140 million euros. Nineteen countries are part of the research crew, including Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States.

The crew posts updates on the PolarStern blog.

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