Fifty miniature satellites, three of which are Australian-made, will be launched from the International Space Station in January 2017.  Also known as CubeSats, these two-kilogram satellites are part of the Qb-50 project that aims to study the thermosphere, the least understood layer in Earth’s atmosphere.

The satellites, which have the size of a lunchbox and cost $1 million each, will be sent to space from Houston, Texas in December and will be launched from the space station a month later. Apparently, researchers and scientists from 28 countries have been working on this project for four years.

The thermosphere is located between 200 and 400 kilometers above the planet’s surface. Scientists explain that this is the first layer of defense against solar flare radiation, cosmic rays and other cosmic weather that can cause several instruments we use to malfunction.

Previously, studying this layer is difficult. Not only did satellites use to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the technology used on the satellites did not allow them to stay in the thermosphere for long.

Now, researchers have lighter and more cost-effective instruments for their study. Among these are three Australian satellites: ACSER’s UNSW-Ec0, INSPIRE-2 and SUSat.

ACSER’s UNSW-Ec0wi will assess the thermosphere’s atomic composition. INSPIRE-2, which was developed by the University of Sydney, UNSW and the Australian National University, will quantify the density of plasma in this layer as well as its electron temperature. SUSat was developed by the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia.

“This region is poorly understood and hard to measure,” says Andrew Dempster, a professor and the director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of NSW. “And yet, it’s the interface between our planet and space. It’s where much of the ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the Sun collides with the Earth, and generates auroras and potential hazards that can affect power grids and communications.”