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Science on Tap with Rebecca Holmes

Honey, have you seen my CubeSat?
October 1, 2018

The computer-generated image shows objects that NASA is currently tracking in Low Earth Orbit. Most of the dots (95%) represent satellites no longer in use. Credit: NASA

CubeSats have become increasingly popular with universities, the military, for commercial projects, and even among individual hobbyists with a penchant for satellite technology and a budget to match.

CubeSats are miniature, short-lived satellites traditionally launched into low earth orbit, though this summer a pair was deployed on a mission to Mars aboard the stationary lander, InSight. Originally designed in 1999 by professors at Stanford and Cal Poly, their initial purpose was enabling students to construct and operate artificial satellites within the constrained time frame and humble budgets of a graduate degree program. Since then, CubeSats have become increasingly popular with universities, the military, for commercial projects, and even among individual hobbyists with a penchant for satellite technology and a budget to match.  With over 800 of these tiny to toaster-sized gadgets currently circling our planet and many more set to launch in the near future, identifying unique CubeSats in the Earth-orbiting crowd has become increasingly challenging for those operating them. Whether in orbit to collect scientific weather data, test space hardware, or for personal artistic projects like Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector, the ability to locate and track a single CubeSat can mean the success or failure of its mission. 

At Los Alamos, researchers have developed tiny laser trackers to address this burgeoning dilemma. Created by the Lab’s Intelligence and Space Research Division, the Extremely Low Resource Optical Identifier, or ELROI, uses identification codes embedded in pulses of light to identify these small-scale satellites. For more information on these electronic “license plates,” join us Monday, October 15 at UnQuarked in Los Alamos for a conversation with Rebecca Holmes about ELROI, one of the Lab’s latest innovations.

Science on tap

Science On Tap is a convivial opportunity to engage with Lab scientists on their current projects. A brief presentation is followed by lively questions, answers, and discussion. The fun takes place on the third Monday of each month from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the UnQuarked Wine Room at 145 Central Park Plaza in Los Alamos. Bradbury Science Museum Association members receive $1 off any drink or food items purchased from UnQuarked during Science On Tap.

The sessions are a joint project between the Bradbury Science Museum and the Los Alamos Creative District.