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ASU Students Launch NASA-Funded CubeSat To Study Urban Heat Island

Students from Arizona State University have launched a small, NASA-funded research satellite to study the urban heat island in seven U.S. cities, including Phoenix.

The Phoenix CubeSat is one of seven nanosatellites selected through NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative, which supports projects designed, built and operated by students, teachers and faculty, as well as NASA centers and nonprofit organizations.

CubeSats meet a standard size profile of 10 centimeters (around 4 inches) per side. This modular design means they stack easily, occupy only limited space and can deploy from standardized chutes aboard spacecraft.

An interdisciplinary group of around 100 ASU undergraduates took part in the effort, which will use an off-the-shelf thermal infrared camera to study changes in the heat properties of cities across the U.S. over time.

The term "urban heat island" describes an urban area that experiences warmer conditions than its surroundings due to human activities, the thermal properties of building materials and other related factors.

The team chose to focus on Phoenix, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore and Minneapolis due to their large populations and range of climate characteristics.

Project manager Sarah Rogers, an aerospace engineering master's student, said the program has focused on education and growth.

"Everyone who's come out of this project, I've just seen grow so much as engineers and as individuals, and that's just been really incredible," she said.

A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Nov. 2 and delivered the CubeSat to the International Space Station. The station will deploy it to orbit in January.

From there, Phoenix could operate for up to two years before its orbit decays and it burns up in the Earth's atmosphere — enough time to provide data through all four seasons for at least a year.

"We'd love to give that information to urban planners in order to essentially help make our cities a lot more sustainable for future generations," Rogers said.

The team will make Phoenix's observations publicly available on its website  phxcubesat.asu.edu/.

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.