NASA has formally green lit a mission to explore how the Sun whips up solar particle storms – those giant frenzies of charged particles that can frazzle orbiting satellites and destroy electronic systems on Earth.
The mission, known as the Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment, or SunRISE for short, will send six small CubeSats – each one the size of a toaster – into geostationary orbit around Earth as soon as July 1, 2023. They will orbit within six miles of each other and interlink sensors to become effectively one large telescope.
The teeny satellites will monitor and capture the Sun’s activity by snapping radio images to build up 3D maps that show where particle storms erupt on the star's surface. The images will also show the Sun’s magnetic field lines reaching out into interplanetary space. This should help scientists figure out which solar processes generate its giant plumes of charged particles.
The mission will be led by Justin Kasper, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan in the US, and managed by folks working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
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"Our motivation is a fascinating signal that we have detected for decades but never been able to make an image of before," Kasper told The Register on Tuesday.
"Coronal mass ejections that will wind up releasing intense radiation into space give off a bright burst of radio waves at really low frequencies that can't be seen from Earth. We can detect those waves on spacecraft with simple antennas but we have never been able to image it because we can't make a six-mile wide dish which is what you would need to be able to focus an image at these low radio frequencies," he added.
"We all think the radio burst is created by the part of the eruption that is going to eventually produce the high energy radiation, presumably as that region crosses some threshold and begins to energize particles. If we can image that emission we will be the first probe capable of remotely seeing where and when this acceleration and production of radiation is happening."
The goal is to understand how these solar storms are created well enough that scientists can predict them in advance and build a warning system.
NASA will have up to $62.6m to spend on the whole mission, including the designing, building, and planning of the CubeSats. The idea was selected as one of two proposals for NASA’s Mission of Opportunity, a class designated for low-cost missions related to astrophysics or heliophysics in 2017.
“We are so pleased to add a new mission to our fleet of spacecraft that help us better understand the Sun, as well as how our star influences the space environment between planets," said Nicky Fox, director of NASA's Heliophysics Division.
"The more we know about how the Sun erupts with space weather events, the more we can mitigate their effects on spacecraft and astronauts." ®