Los Alamos National Laboratory, or LANL, scientists designed an armchair-sized satellite, dubbed Cibola and scheduled to launch in late February 2007, that will help them study lightning, ionospheric disturbances and other sources of radio-frequency atmospheric noise.

The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Research and Development's NA-22 agency commissioned the project. NA-22 uses technology to reduce national security threats posed by nuclear weapons proliferation and illicit materials trafficking.

The satellite measures 24×24×39 inches and weighs 350 pounds. Once in orbit, it will deploy from its four solar panels — capable of 110 W of power — two of its four science antennas, which extend more than 10 feet from the panels. The other two antennas deploy directly from the spacecraft body.

It will be placed into an orbit at an altitude of 350 miles, with an orbital inclination that will allow for the observation of land areas as far north as the central U.S. and as far south as the tip of Africa, according to LANL.

The satellite bears eight new technologies for space-flight data collection and analysis. These include a new power supply, inflatable antennas, deployable booms, a launch-vehicle separation system and a high-density pack of AA Lithium-Ion batteries, LANL spokeswoman Nancy Ambrosiano said.

Satellite and supercomputing payload technologies have been under development at the lab for the past six years, according to Diane Roussel-Dupre, LANL project leader of space data systems.

The supercomputing payload translates raw data into refined answers and then transmits it back to researchers. The computer is based on field programmable gate arrays — or FPGA — which can be configured and reconfigured by either the system manufacturer or the end user. LANL uses an FPGA system developed by San Jose, Calif.-based Xilinx. An FPGA-based computer is roughly 100 times faster than what currently is available to space flight. Moreover, transmitting refined data is more efficient than sending massive raw data files that take additional time and power to transmit, according to Roussel-Dupre.