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NASA's six-mile-wide orbital telescope is 1/6th built
Interferometry will be used to turn six toaster-sized satellites into one giant solar observatory
NASA has plans to build a telescope six miles (9.66km) wide in Earth orbit, comprised of a constellation of six toaster-sized satellites. The first of those toasters has just been finished.
The Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment, or SunRISE, will keep a close eye on our local star to help scientists gain a better understanding of space weather events caused by solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). The six "SmallSats" will orbit Earth approximately 22,000 miles (35,405.568km) away in a circular formation.
For reference, the Moon is approximately 238,900 miles (384,472km) from Earth, while the James Webb Space Telescope's home at Lagrange Point 2 sits approximately one million miles (1,609,344km) away.
SunRISE's SmallSats will connect together to act as a single antenna used to detect radio wave bursts that indicate a solar event that could have an impact on human space activities. Justin Kasper, SunRISE principal investigator, said that the ultimate goal of the project is to improve understanding of the mechanisms driving space weather events.
"These high-energy solar particles can jeopardize unprotected astronauts and technology. By tracking the radio bursts associated with these events, we can be better prepared and informed," Kasper explained.
Because it doesn't have a lens, SunRISE will capture images using interferometry – the same principle as the Event Horizon Telescope NASA scientists used to photograph the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
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Interferometry "works by creating an array of smaller telescopes that can be synchronized to focus on the same object at the same time and act as a giant virtual telescope," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained.
Because it's in orbit, SunRISE will have the unique ability among interferometry telescopes to see long radio wavelengths normally blocked by Earth's ionosphere.
Those radio wavelengths will help SunRISE pinpoint the origin of solar radio bursts, which will help Earth-based astronomers understand how early detection of solar energetic particles might benefit Earth. Its position will also allow SunRISE to map the pattern of solar magnetic field lines that reach into interplanetary space, NASA said.
With only the first of six satellites completed by Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory, SunRISE has some work to do before its estimated 2024 launch date – and that's far from a sure thing.
As part of the NASA Explorer's Mission of Opportunity program that funds small-scale space projects, SunRISE will have to rely on commercial space company Maxar to ferry it into orbit. Depending on Maxar, SunRISE could launch anytime between April 2024 and September 2025. ®