NASA okays SunRISE CubeSat mission to study solar storms
NASA has given the green light to a new CubeSat mission to study the giant space weather storms produced by the Sun. Slated to launch after July 1, 2023, the Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment (SunRISE) will use six toaster-oven-sized spacecraft flying in formation to form a single, very large radio telescope to monitor solar particle storms.
Space weather sounds innocuous but, like Earth weather, it can be extremely dangerous. Because the Sun is essentially a gigantic fusion reactor that goes through periods of high and low activity, it sends out streams of radiation and subatomic particles punctuated by massive flares, resulting in solar particle storms.
These storms are invisible to the naked eye but they have very real effects. Astronauts traveling outside the Earth's protective magnetic fields could be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, satellites and deep-space probes can be damaged by energetic particles, and they can even knock out power grids on the Earth's surface.
Therefore, it's no surprise that NASA and other space agencies are very keen to keep an eye on the Sun. To help with this task, NASA has awarded a US$62.6 million grant to the SunRISE project, which is led by Justin Kasper at the University of Michigan, to design, build and launch the CubeSat constellation under the management of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
Once in Earth orbit, the six mini-satellites will remain on station within 6 miles (10 km) of each other as they observe the Sun and the space environment at low spectral frequencies. The goal is to build up three-dimensional maps that will locate where solar particles are blasting out from the Sun, learn more about how they evolve, and how these jets are produced and accelerated. NASA says that they will also map the pattern of magnetic field lines reaching from the Sun out into interplanetary space for the first time.
SunRISE is being developed as one of NASA's Missions of Opportunity, where mission costs are kept down by launching as a ride-along with an already approved mission. In this case, a commercial satellite provided by Maxar of Westminster, Colorado.
"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," says 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."