Predicting the impact of space weather events, particularly those driven by energy from the sun, requires ever-higher-accuracy atmospheric models. A newly patented sensor developed at Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) should help in that quest by facilitating next-generation measurements from orbiting satellites. Designed by SDL research scientist Erik Syrstad, the Imaging Dispersive Energy Analyzer (IDEA) sensor uses an imaging ion detector to produce continuous snapshots of the incoming atmosphere.
Compared to previous space-weather sensors, IDEA detects and separates sample gas and plasma particles at a much higher fraction in the region of space closest to the Earth’s atmosphere. This results in higher signal and improved measurement accuracy, and the ability to operate at higher (albeit much thinner) altitudes. It simultaneously measures small changes in wind, temperature, density, and composition parameters. Overall, the data collected will help mitigate degraded GPS and radio signals, potential spacecraft damage, and increased atmospheric drag that can alter a satellite’s orbit
According to IDEA’s patent, researchers are also working to miniaturize the sensor for optimal configuration in small satellites such as CubeSats.