Takeoff of Ariane 6: CURIE, NASA’s radio detective

Takeoff of Ariane 6: CURIE, NASA’s radio detective
Takeoff of Ariane 6: CURIE, NASA’s radio detective
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02/04/2024
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The brand new European launcher will take off soon, and with it many space missions each with their own objective, their own destination and their own team ready to applaud. Whether launching new satellites to observe and study the Earth, peering into deep space or testing important new technologies in orbit, the first flight of Ariane 6 will showcase the versatility and flexibility of this impressive heavy launcher. Keep reading to learn everything about CURIE, then find out who else will be among the first to fly.

Space weather

NASA’s CURIE (CUbesat Radio Interferometry Experiment) mission is one of the payloads that will take off aboard the first flight of Ariane 6. CURIE will measure radio waves coming from the Sun and other radio sources in the sky, waves that must be measured in space because they are absorbed by the Earth’s ionosphere. This region, which extends from 30 to 600 miles above the Earth’s surface, is composed of ionized (charged) gases; it is created by the interaction of solar radiation with the upper atmosphere.

Artist’s impression of CURIE in flight

CURIE is made up of two space vehicles, bolted together to form one at launch, and which will separate once in orbit. From their separate positions, the CURIE A and B satellites will make it possible to measure the same radio waves from two locations at the same time. The origin of the detected radio waves can be reconstructed using the radio “interferometric analysis” technique.

CURIE’s main scientific objective is to use radio “interferometry” to study radio bursts due to solar flares, such as flares and coronal mass ejections in the inner heliosphere. These events are at the origin of space weather, the influence of which is felt on Earth and other planets through increased auroral activity and geomagnetic effects.

Coronal mass ejection of November 29, 2020

CURIE will be able to determine the location and size of the Source regions of radio bursts, then follow their movement after their departure from the Sun.

Such a radio interferometry observatory from space has been envisaged for a long time, whether in orbit around the Earth or the Moon, or on the far side of the Moon. CURIE will be the first mission of its kind to measure radio waves in the frequency range of 0.1 to 19 MHz from space. It will act as an experimental platform and a precursor in the development of new radio observation techniques in space – these are important for our understanding of the heliospheric space weather environment, and the impact of the Sun on the planets of the Solar System.

Beyond its important scientific goals, CURIE will also prove that the concept of a dedicated space-based interferometer can be realized using relatively inexpensive CubeSats.

Separation of the Ariane 6 fairing

The launch of Ariane 6 is scheduled for June-July 2024. It takes over from a launcher which has enjoyed enormous success, Ariane 5, the main European launcher for more than a quarter of a century. Ariane 5 flew 117 times between 1996 and 2023 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.

Ariane 6 was designed for all possible futures and will demonstrate maximum versatility. It will be able to place any satellite or payload on any orbital trajectory thanks to the new Vinci re-ignitable engine; this will propel the upper stage of Ariane 6 again and again, stopping and starting in order to insert missions into any desired orbit. It will retain enough fuel to make a final push, either to deorbit and safely re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, or to insert itself into a nearby “graveyard orbit.”

CURIE in clean room

CURIE will be launched into a near-Earth circular orbit, at an altitude of 580 km above the Earth’s surface and outside our planet’s ionosphere which absorbs radio waves.

“When we were offered a place on the first Ariane 6 flight, the CURIE team was very enthusiastic. This is an event of such magnitude in the world of launchers and space exploration,” recalls David Sundkvist, principal investigator of the mission.

“For a team developing a new concept – a satellite radio interferometer satellite that flies in formation – taking off aboard the maiden flight of Europe’s newest launch vehicle is the realization of a satellite developer’s dream.”

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