Imprimir Republish


Brazil and the USA launch SPORT satellite

Device will study plasma bubbles in the upper atmosphere that affect communications on Earth

Plasma bubbles in the ionosphere (black patches in the image)

Embrace / Inpe

Satellite communication delays are not uncommon in Brazil, often disrupting services that rely on radio communications and GPS systems, such as air traffic control. This satellite interference is caused by a combination of two factors: plasma bubbles—plumes of charged particles, or ions, in the upper atmosphere; and Brazil’s geographic position near the Equator, where a magnetic anomaly exacerbates the effects of plasma bubbles.

To investigate the phenomenon, the Brazilian (AEB) and US (NASA) space agencies launched a newly developed CubeSat, or small satellite, last November 26 at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. The satellite—dubbed Scintillation Prediction Observation Research Task, or SPORT—was launched aboard a Space X Falcon-9 rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).

The scientific instrumentation for the satellite was created at the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and the Brazilian Air Force Institute of Technology (ITA) in a collaboration with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and several US universities. Weighing 9 kilograms and the size of a shoe box, the satellite was held inside the space station until December 29, when it was deployed to commence its mission. SPORT will orbit the Earth for a minimum of one year, at an altitude between 350 and 400 kilometers (km).

Developed at a cost of around US$6 million, split evenly between Brazil and the US, the satellite was specially designed to study the formation of plasma bubbles in the ionosphere. These bubbles can scatter radio signals, often causing them to collide in a phenomenon called scintillation. The ionosphere lies between 80 and 600 km above sea level, where Earth and space weather systems meet. It is also home to many important satellites, including the ISS. Plasma bubbles form as a result of solar radiation impinging on the ionosphere, which is highly unstable.

“Scintillation is most intense from September to April, especially between dusk and 2 a.m.,” says physicist Mangalathayil Abdu, a retired INPE researcher and a former professor at ITA, who co-led the Brazilian leg of the SPORT mission with funding from FAPESP. “Depending on the time of year, scintillation can be observed every night.” Abdu, who is originally from India, was the first to record ionospheric plasma bubbles in Brazil, in 1976. He led INPE’s ionospheric research program from 1978 to 2008, and is currently involved in a number of related projects.


During the day, the Sun’s radiation excites the molecules floating in the air. This creates an electric field that fills the atmosphere with charged particles. The density of charged particles varies with the time of year and time of day. At night, the absence of solar radiation causes the loose charged particles in the plasma to recombine into gas molecules. This creates plasma bubbles, located in the dark areas in the images illustrating this article.

This natural phenomenon is most common in areas along the equator. In Brazil it is compounded by an additional factor: the South Atlantic Anomaly, a magnetic phenomenon that allows the Sun’s radiation to dip closer to the surface than normal, causing increased excitation—and plasma bubbles—over the region.

The SPORT satellite was built locally at ITA and has been under development since 2017. The on-board instruments were developed at NASA, the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Utah State University in Logan, and The Aerospace Corporation in California. SPORT is comprised of six instruments that will take measurements of magnetic and electric fields and ion velocity and density in the atmosphere. The data collected by the satellite will be transmitted to INPE and NASA for processing before it is made publicly available

SPORT will help investigate the conditions under which plasma bubbles develop in space, and potentially find ways to predict when these disturbances could disrupt communication systems. If scientists can predict when a satellite will be affected by these phenomena, communication losses can be prevented by redirecting the signal to another satellite outside the influence of the plasma bubbles.

While scintillation phenomena have been extensively studied from Earth at the Jicamarca Radio Observatory in Peru, scientists hope that having a dedicated satellite in space for this research will enhance their understanding of how plasma bubbles form. Jim Spann, an American physicist and leading space weather scientist at NASA who is involved in the project, said in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP: “By making observations from space, we hope to capture aspects of the phenomena that are unobservable from Earth. Unlike other satellites launched to investigate space weather, SPORT is not in orbit along the equator and so is able to scan the broader magnetic equator [which includes areas further south and north].”

Spann, who closely oversaw the project at the Marshall Space Flight Center, suggested naming it SPORT for reasons unrelated to science, but to his past experience in Brazil. The son of missionary parents, he lived in Recife, northeastern Brazil, from the age of 5 to 18. During his time there, he used to watch soccer games with his father and brothers at the local stadium. “We supported Sport Club, a local soccer team,” he said in Portuguese with a blend of Northeastern Brazilian and American accent. The new satellite seemed the perfect opportunity to pay a tribute to his team. “The name ‘Sport’ works in both English and Portuguese,” he explained.

The Scintillation Prediction Observation Research Task (SPORT) (no. 16/24970-7); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Principal Investigator Mangalathayil Abdu (ITA); Investment R$4,783,335.43.