BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) – CU Boulder is about to put a CUTE spin on space exploration. The CUTE Satellite, short for Colorado Ultraviolet Transit Experiment, is no bigger than a box of cereal but will spend 7 months exploring planets outside our solar system.

CUTE will launch on September 27th on the back of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in Southern California. The satellite, according to principal mission investigator Kevin France, cost around $4 million and is only about as big as a “family-sized box of Cheerios.”

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(credit: University of Colorado)

“It’s an experiment that NASA is conducting to see how much science can be done with a small satellite,” said France, a professor in the CU Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. “That’s exciting but also a little daunting.”

CUTE will then enter orbit around Earth, aiming sensors at a series of exoplanets called “hot Jupiters.” These planets are large hot gas giants. CUTE’s goal is to give scientists better understanding of how these planets form.

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(credit: University of Colorado)

This is one in a series of missions spearheaded by the CU Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. LASP has developed many other CubeSat missions to explore a a gamut of things like solar activity to supernovae in far-off galaxies.

“Ultimately CUTE has one major purpose, and that is to study the inflated atmospheres of these really hot, pretty gassy exoplanets,” Arika Egan, a LASP graduate student who helped to develop the mission, said. “The inflation and escape these exoplanetary atmospheres undergo are on scales just not seen in our own solar system.”

(credit: University of Colorado)

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“When you look up at the sky and see thousands of stars, that is existential on its own,” she said. “But then you think about the planets we’ve discovered around those stars, thousands of planets. We’ve just barely scratched the surface of characterizing them, of understanding their diversity. How little we know is astounding, and joining the effort to learn more is fulfilling.”

Ben Warwick