Rethinking Relationships: Ice and Cubesats

TEDx Boca Raton
Monday, December 2, 2019

The TEDx Boca Raton 2019's theme, "Rethinking Relationships," was selected in part to examine how paradigm shifts in behavior, technology and global influences impact our significance, as individuals and as connected beings.

The organizers asked the speakers to consider some questions: "What’s our relationship to a smart building when it’s filled with internet connected devices? What’s our relationship to other people when technology allows us to collaborate, if not think as one?  What’s our relationship to government and corporations that know more about us than we know about ourselves? What’s our relationship to other people when our society segments us into ideological tribes? Are we each the sum of our relationships?"

EAPS members Meghana Ranganathan and Kerri Cahoy shared their research and thoughts on the theme this past fall.


Our History and Future in Ice

Ice has recorded and defined our history for thousands of years. For that period of time, ice has been a constant in our environment. Because of this constancy, our knowledge of how ice sheets move and how they change their environment has been slim. With a changing climate, however, our ice sheets are no longer a constant. They’re changing at a rapid pace, and we have to ask: just how fast do our ice sheets change? And how soon will it start to affect us?

Meghana Ranganathan is a Ph.D student in Climate Science at MIT EAPS. She received her B.A. in Mathematics from Swarthmore College and has conducted research in many mathematically inclined fields – including statistical paleontology and operations research – before finding a passion in atmospheric and climate science. Previously, she analyzed El Nino-Southern Oscillation forecasts at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory under Dr. Michael Tippett. Currently, she is interested in forecasting complex systems that are often hard to fully observe, exhibit chaotic behavior, and are high-dimensional, with the intent to decrease uncertainties in predictions. Her focus is on glaciology, answering fundamental questions about ice flow with the ultimate goal of better predicting sea level rise. She is also interested in writing and science communication and has written blog posts for Scientific American.


How Tiny Satellites Can Help Us Weather Through Hurricanes

Shoebox-sized satellites called CubeSats can help us better predict the path of severe storms and stay connected to each other before, during, and after landfall. CubeSat systems can generally accomplish the same functions as much larger and more expensive satellites. This means that we can launch a lot of them for a reasonable cost, which we cannot do for larger satellites. Kerri Cahoy is an Associate Professor in Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kerri leads the Space Telecommunications, Astronomy, and Radiation (STAR) Laboratory, and design, builds, launches, and operates shoebox-sized satellites called CubeSats. Kerri works with CubeSats to improve hurricane tracking using an instrument called a microwave radiometer. Her team flies miniature microwave radiometers on CubeSats and has shown that they work as well as larger and more expensive satellites with the Microsized Microwave Atmospheric Satellite (MicroMAS-2A). The next step is to go from only having one CubeSat in orbit to several, so that they can fly over the same location more often, like every fifteen minutes instead of only two or three times a day.

Kerri Cahoy is an Associate Professor in Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, affiliated with EAPS. Kerri leads the Space Telecommunications, Astronomy, and Radiation (STAR) Laboratory, and design, builds, launches, and operates shoebox-sized satellites called CubeSats.

CubeSats are changing our relationship with space, in particular, changing how fast we can update and improve our weather forecasts. With the rocket ride-shares for CubeSats costing about one thousand times less than before, it is possible for anyone to design and build their own satellite and get it into orbit. Because CubeSats are shoebox-sized, they have limited power, mass, and volume, but in the twenty years since they were invented, CubeSat systems can generally accomplish the same functions as much larger and more expensive satellites. This means that we can launch a lot of them for a reasonable cost, which we cannot do for larger satellites.

Kerri works with CubeSats to improve hurricane tracking using an instrument called a microwave radiometer. A microwave radiometer can measure atmospheric temperature, even through clouds and precipitation. Her team flies miniature microwave radiometers on CubeSats and has shown that they work as well as larger and more expensive satellites with the Microsized Microwave Atmospheric Satellite (MicroMAS-2A). The next step is to go from only having one CubeSat in orbit to several, so that they can fly over the same location more often, like every fifteen minutes instead of only two or three times a day. These more frequent measurements will help weathermen do a better job of predicting hurricane tracks and intensity.

Kerri has a Ph.D. and master’s in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University, and a bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University. Before joining MIT, she worked as a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at NASA Ames Research Center, and on geostationary communications satellites at Space Systems Loral (now SSL MDA).