NASA’s PREFIRE Mission Successfully Launched to Measure Earth’s Polar Heat Radiation

NASA has successfully launched the Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment (PREFIRE) mission, deploying a pair of CubeSats, each the size of a shoebox, to measure the heat Earth radiates into space from its polar regions. These CubeSats are now in orbit, focusing on capturing data from two of the coldest and most remote areas on the planet: the Arctic and Antarctica.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, named “PREFIRE and Ice,” stands vertically on the pad in Mahia, New Zealand, in preparation for the launch of the second of two PREFIRE CubeSats for NASA on May 29, 2024. Photo Credit: Rocket Lab.

Balancing Earth’s Energy Budget

Central to the PREFIRE mission is the concept of Earth’s energy budget, which is the balance between the incoming heat energy from the Sun and the outgoing heat emitted by the planet. This balance is crucial in determining Earth’s temperature and climate. With the CubeSats in place, detailed measurements of the far-infrared radiation, a significant portion of the heat radiated from the polar regions, will now be possible.

Far-Infrared Radiation: The Missing Link

The CubeSats, equipped with miniaturized thermal infrared spectrometers, will now begin capturing data on far-infrared radiation escaping into space from Earth’s poles. This radiation is influenced by atmospheric water vapor content and the presence, structure, and composition of clouds. The data collected will provide researchers with vital information on where and when far-infrared energy radiates from the Arctic and Antarctic environments into space.

The PREFIRE (Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment) mission will deploy two CubeSats, depicted here in an artist’s rendering against a backdrop of Earth from orbit, to study the amount of heat the planet absorbs and emits from its polar regions, including the Arctic and Antarctica. Photo Credit: NASA

Innovative Technology in Action

Once the CubeSats have successfully settled into a polar orbit and are measuring far-infrared emissions, they will observe how these emissions vary throughout the day and across different seasons. These observations will enable scientists to assess the relationship between changes in thermal infrared emissions at the top of Earth’s atmosphere and changes in cloud cover and surface conditions below, such as the extent of sea ice and the presence of meltwater.

NASA’s PREFIRE (Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment) CubeSats were encapsulated inside Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket payload fairings on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, at the company’s facility in New Zealand. Photo credit: Rocket Lab.

With the PREFIRE mission now in full operation, researchers are poised to bridge a significant gap in our understanding of Earth’s heat loss to space from the polar regions. The high-resolution measurements captured by the CubeSats will allow for a systematic study of the planet’s far-infrared heat emissions, providing ten times finer wavelength resolution than any previous sensor. This successful launch marks a major milestone in enhancing our understanding of polar climate dynamics and Earth’s overall energy budget.

Alexander Mitchell
Alexander Mitchell
Pilot on the B-767, international and overwater operations. Accomplished SIGINT/LLVI operator with five years of diverse experience in strategic and tactical operations. Adept in handling confidential information and situations with discretion. Respected leader, providing purpose, motivation, and direction focused on achieving and exceeding company goals.


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