IceCube Mission: NASA's Tiny Satellite Makes World's First Ice Cloud Map

Unlocking the secrets of clouds is not an easy task, particularly when it comes to ice clouds. These clouds are responsible for the heaviest rains and are made up of tiny ice particles that are too opaque to trigger infra-red and visible sensors on the many satellites orbiting our planet.

But a tiny satellite has succeeded where all others have failed. The IceCube experimental satellite has managed to create the first global map of ice clouds by taking pictures of the frozen particles within them, NASA announced today.

The map features the distribution of ice clouds on an average of three months, showing bright peak areas where these clouds are present in large numbers and thus where the heaviest precipitations are located.

The mini-satellite is an experimental class of CubeSat, just like the MarCO twin satellites that are currently en route to Mars. Though considerably smaller than the briefcase-sized MarCO-A and MarCO-B, the IceCube satellite is also meant to demonstrate novel CubeSat technology.

Similar to the trailblazing MarCOs that have ventured beyond Earth's orbit, the much smaller IceCube satellite also has deployable solar panels and a UHF antenna. But it was its submillimeter radiometer that did the trick and helped the 10-pound satellite snag a picture of the ice particles inside these clouds.

As detailed by NASA in a previous news release, the submillimeter radiometer helped the tiny CubeSat, which is no bigger than a loaf of bread, produce "the world's first map of the global distribution of atmospheric ice in the 883-Gigahertz band."

Having a satellite record data on this particular frequency in the submillimeter wavelength is very important, because it offers a unique insight into what goes on in the Earth's upper troposphere. Here, the frozen particles in ice clouds not only elude infra-red and visible sensors, but also other microwave bands which can't detect them clearly.

The interesting thing about the IceCube satellite — apart from its glorious achievement, that is — is the fact that it was only supposed to be active for a month, NASA points out.

The mini-satellite was launched from the International Space Station in May, 2017, and was intended for a 30-day mission to test its technology, but it ended up orbiting our planet for an entire year.

According to Goddard's Small Satellite manager Tom Johnson, from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, the IceCube mission was extended for so long because the tiny satellite proved it was performing "outstanding science."

"We download data eight to 10 times a week. Even if we miss a week, the CubeSat can hold a couple of weeks of data," Johnson explained.

The tiny spacecraft, powered by batteries that can store enough solar energy to run it through the night, is operational 24 hours a day and records ice cloud distribution to help scientists understand more about Earth's climate.

Funded by NASA's Science Mission Directorate CubeSat Initiative and the agency's InVEST (In-Space Validation of Earth Science Technologies) program, which is part of the Earth Science Technology Office, the IceCube satellite can offer a deeper insight into our planet's atmosphere and weather.

IceCube principal investigator Dong Wu, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, points out that ice clouds are the source of heavy downpours, which means that studying them can help improve weather models and forecasts.