Watch As A Tiny Spacecraft Swan Dives From The ISS For Science

Cubesats deployed by the ISS. Nanoracks

Today a very peculiar space mission will take place, and you can watch it launch. It's peculiar because both its starting point and its goal are unusual. The mission will start from the International Space Station (ISS), where the QubeSat for Aerothermodynamic Research and Measurements on Ablation, or Qarman, will be jettisoned at 11.20am UTC.

The CubeSat was sent into space on December 5, onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. After it's been flung off the ISS, the small craft will orbit around the Earth for months before its reentry. And that’s when the fun, and the science, start. The CubeSat is designed to collect as much data as possible during its fiery descent, providing scientists with precious information on the physics of reentering the atmosphere.

The CubeSat, which measures just 30 centimeters (less than a foot), will be placed in the airlock of Japan’s Kibo module by astronaut Andrew Morgan. The module's robotic arm will then position the deployer so that it is safely facing away from the space station, and then shoot it into space.

“From there we think it will take about six months to reenter the atmosphere. To find out how accurately we can forecast Qarman’s orbital decay is part of the reason we’re flying the mission, relevant to the study of space debris,” Professor Olivier Chazot, head of the Aeronautic/Aerospace Department of the Von Karman Institute who developed Qarman, said in a statement.

Animation of Qarman falling down to Earth. Courtesy of Dr Gilles Bailet, University of Glasgow.

Qarman is shaped like a badminton shuttlecock. The shape is designed to maximize drag so that it can spend more time collecting data. The mission will begin in earnest at about 90 kilometers (56 miles) of altitude. The atmosphere will push Qarman about but the panels will keep it steady, helped by having the CubeSat's center of mass towards the front.

“This will help focus heating on Qarman’s square-shaped nose, which is made from cork – not the sort you find in champagne bottles but a carefully tailored aerospace variety, supplied by Portuguese company Amorim and used in numerous spacecraft thermal protection systems,” added Prof. Chazot.

The deployment of Qarman will be shown live on the Von Karman Institute’s YouTube channel from 11.20am UTC.

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