Explained | NASA’s PREFIRE mission

The mission is designed for a pair of tiny satellites to measure a little-studied portion of the radiant energy emitted by Earth. Photo: NASA

A new pair of shoebox-size climate satellites will soon be studying two of the most remote regions on Earth — the Arctic and Antarctic. Called the Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment  (PREFIRE), the mission’s twin satellites will measure the amount of heat the planet emits to space from these polar regions. This information is key to understanding how the planet’s incoming and outgoing heat influences Earth’s climate.

• PREFIRE was jointly developed by NASA and the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is managed by the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

• The mission’s cube satellites, or CubeSats, will both launch from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. The first launch is planned for no earlier than May 22. The launch date for the second satellite will be announced shortly after the launch of the first satellite.

• The CubeSats will use a thermal infrared spectrometer to measure the heat, in the form of far-infrared energy, radiated into space by Earth’s surface and atmosphere.

Significance of this mission

• The mission is designed for a pair of tiny satellites to measure a little-studied portion of the radiant energy emitted by Earth, for clues about sea ice loss, ice-sheet melting, and a warming Arctic – the region that behaves like our planet’s thermostat, as it regulates the climate by venting excess energy received in the tropics.

• Global temperatures are going up because of the increase in greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere – and the Arctic is warming more than 2.5 times faster than the rest of Earth. 

• The planet’s poles help to regulate our climate by radiating a lot of the heat initially absorbed at the tropics back into space. 

• Researchers have relatively little data on which parts of the Arctic and Antarctic are shedding this heat. 

• PREFIRE will help address this lack of knowledge, giving scientists a better idea of how efficiently far-infrared heat is emitted by things like snow and sea ice, and how clouds influence the amount of far-infrared radiation that escapes to space.

• Data from NASA’s PREFIRE mission will target the critical polar regions to inform climate and ice models, improving scientists’ predictions of how the planet’s sea levels and weather are likely to change in a warming world.

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