Four Berkeley satellites could be exploring Mars and Earth by 2022

An artist’s depiction of the twin TRACERS satellites that will monitor solar wind particles impinging on Earth’s magnetosphere. (Image courtesy of University of Iowa)

If all goes as planned, two teams of scientists and engineers at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory will be sending experiments into orbit around Mars and Earth by the end of 2022, each mission consisting of identical twin satellites.

Last month, NASA announced that a mission comprised of two spacecraft, each carrying an identical suite of experiments, is one of three finalists that may be chosen for launch in three years. Led by Robert Lillis, associate director for planetary science and astrobiology at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE) would orbit Mars and explore how the solar wind strips the atmosphere away from the planet. The twin satellites, each the size of a small mini-bar refrigerator, also would map the planet’s ionosphere, a layer of Mars’ upper atmosphere that could interfere with radio communication between future Mars colonies.

A year from now, NASA will decide whether the mission will go forward, potentially committing up to $55 million dollars to make it happen. More than one of the three finalists may be selected to fly, Lillis said.

In June, NASA gave a final go-ahead for the Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites, or TRACERS, mission, which will employ two identical satellites to observe the Earth’s Northern magnetic cusp — a region encircling Earth’s North pole where the planet’s magnetic field lines curve down toward Earth, particularly during violent geomagnetic storms triggered by outbursts from the sun.

Led by Craig Kletzing of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, the TRACERS spacecraft will measure electrical fields with instruments built by UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) specialists. The SSL team will be led by John Bonnell, an SSL assistant research physicist. Not including rideshare costs, TRACERS is funded for up to $115 million, of which approximately $13.5 million will come to UC Berkeley.

Read the complete article, courtesy of Berkeley News, b Robert Sanders,