NASA selects concepts for future missions to examine space environment
NASA has announced the selection of five Medium Class Explorer concept missions that could one day revolutionize our understanding of the space environment. The proposals include efforts to collect imagery of the Sun’s poles, and explore how the solar wind erupting from our parent star interacts with Earth’s protective magnetosphere, and creates auroras.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched humanity’s first orbital satellite, Sputnik 1, and in so doing kickstarted the space age. Whilst this monumental achievement was born in conflict, it led to international co-operation.
The decades that followed saw scientists around the world explore the enigmatic environment beyond Earth’s atmospheric shell in exquisite detail. These studies facilitated the construction of spacecraft that allowed brave explorers to set foot on Earth’s moon, and later led to the creation of a permanently crewed space station in low orbit.
NASA recently revealed the selection of five concept missions that could one day answer some of the myriad questions that remain surrounding the nature of the space environment.
Each of the newly selected concept missions studies will receive US$1.25 million in funding. At the end of the nine-month study period, up to two of the five proposals will be selected for further development, and eventually, launch.
One of the concepts chosen by NASA is the Solar-Terrestrial Observer for the Response of the Magnetosphere (STORM) mission. STORM would seek to give scientists a global view of how the stream of particles flowing out from the Sun – known as the solar wind – interacts with, and affects Earth’s magnetosphere.
To this end, the mission would make use of a combination of in situ and remote observations to track how energy is transmitted throughout near-Earth space. STORM’s team members believe that their project would offer a unified view of how different regions of the magnetosphere interact with space weather, and then with each other.
The satellite would carry a compliment of six scientific instruments capable of measuring the solar wind input and the varied, subtle response of Earth’s magnetic field.
Another proposal accepted by NASA is the HelioSwarm mission, which will attempt to shed light on how plasma turbulence heats the particles that form the solar wind, using a swarm of nine satellites.
The Multi-slit Solar Explorer (MUSE) concept meanwhile would take detailed measurements of processes occurring in a super-hot region of the Sun’s atmosphere known as the corona. Data collected by the Earth-orbiting spacecraft could help answer the question as to why this part of the Sun’s atmosphere is between 200 – 500 times hotter than the surface of our star – a counter-intuitive phenomenon called coronal heating.
It would also shed light on how dramatic and potentially disruptive solar flares are created using a fast-firing high-resolution imaging spectrograph.
Another accepted concept – the Auroral Reconstruction CubeSwarm (ARCS) mission – would observe the processes that form colorful light shows in Earth’s atmosphere using a combination of 32 orbital CubeSats and a further 32 ground-based observatories.
Once launched, the CubeSats would cross over the northern and southern auroral lights. As they pass overhead, the 32 imagers on the ground would measure the characteristics of the charged particles located between the spacecraft and the array, which in turn will give scientists information regarding the dynamics of the space weather system, and the magnetosphere surrounding Earth.
Finally, the Solaris concept mission would seek to collect imagery of the Sun’s polar regions. Over the course of three solar rotations, a spacecraft would capture data on our star’s light signature, magnetic fields, and movement in the Sun’s surface, otherwise known as the photosphere. By obtaining a better view of the polar regions, scientists will be able to gain a greater understanding of physical processes that affect the entirety of the Sun, and how they shape the solar activity cycle.
"We constantly seek missions that use cutting edge technology and novel approaches to push the boundaries of science," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Each one of these proposals offers the chance to observe something we have never before seen or to provide unprecedented insights into key areas of research, all to further the exploration of the universe we live in."