Ooh, A Pwasma Spectwometer!

In addition to Cornell’s cracker-sized satellite, another part of STS-134‘s payload is WISPERS or Canary — a plasma spectrometer designed and built by the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Maryland.

Canary, a plasma spectrometer, will investigate the interaction of approaching spacecraft with the background plasma environment around the ISS and disturbances in the ionosphere caused by space vehicles. The device will also provide a better understanding of the origin and impact of plasma irregularities in the Earth’s ionosphere, and demonstrate low-cost techniques for monitoring those conditions. Canary is the second Wafer Integrated Plasma Spectrometers (WISPERS) device created by APL; engineers used innovative MicroElectroMechanical (MEMS) technology when designing WISPERS to reduce size and energy consumption while increasing sensitivity. The first WISPERS device was launched last year aboard FalconSat-5. “Canary and WISPERS will provide on-orbit data for understanding how spacecraft operations affect the natural environment,” says Robert Osiander, principal investigator for WISPERS at APL.
Canary gathers particles of plasma (an electrically-charged gas) through a hole smaller than the diameter of a human hair; the particles are then sorted according to energy and type by a titanium electrostatic analyzer less than a tenth of an inch thick. By measuring the type and energy levels of plasma around it, Canary can provide warnings of potentially hazardous operating conditions.

“Canary will add an important new tool to those we use to understand the near-Earth space environment,” says Larry Paxton, a space scientist at APL and member of the Canary team. “Canary will also demonstrate a new, cost-effective approach to supporting our nation’s operations in space.”
Canary was built by APL in coordination with the Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center (SPARC) at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and was funded in part by the Naval Research Laboratory‘s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program. Canary is part of the STP-H3 payload, which is integrated and flown under the direction of the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program. Canary is scheduled to be installed on the ISS on flight day 3.

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