NASA has taken a big step towards launching new missions that would help us better understand how the sun interacts with the space environment around our planet. The agency has picked five proposals and given them $1.25 million each to conduct a nine-month mission concept study under its heliophysics program. After the study period, NASA will choose two to send to space in the coming years. The hope is to deploy a mission that will not only “improve [our] understanding about the universe,” but also “offer key information to help protect astronauts, satellites and communications signals — such as GPS — in space.”
Space weather has a huge impact on both communications signals and space exploration. Geomagnetic storms caused by solar matter, for instance, could lead to less accurate GPS. Solar particles could also be hazardous to spacefarers — in particular, they could damage the DNA within an astronaut’s cells and cause cancer.
Here are the five proposals NASA chose:
Solar-Terrestrial Observer for the Response of the Magnetosphere (STORM)
This mission plans to provide a global view of the space weather system. It will use several tools to observe how solar particles interact with Earth’s magnetosphere and to figure out how an event in one region of the sphere affects another.
Solar-Terrestrial Observer for the Response of the Magnetosphere, aka STORM, would provide the first-ever global view of our vast space weather system. STORM is led by David Sibeck at @NASAGoddard in Greenbelt, Maryland. pic.twitter.com/AyTzAVSFnN— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) August 28, 2020
HelioSwarm: The Nature of Turbulence in Space Plasmas
HelioSwarm will use nine SmallSat spacecraft to take measurements that’ll help us understand solar winds.
Multi-slit Solar Explorer (MUSE)
This mission will use spectroscopy techniques to help unravel the mysteries behind the processes and events happening in the Sun's atmosphere, including the cause behind solar eruptions such as solar flares.
Multi-slit Solar Explorer, aka MUSE, would provide high-cadence observations of the mechanisms driving an array of processes and events in the Sun's atmosphere. MUSE is led by Bart De Pontieu at @LockheedMartin in Palo Alto, California. pic.twitter.com/ufKNP3nmJO— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) August 28, 2020
Auroral Reconstruction CubeSwarm (ARCS)
ARCS will use 32 CubeSats and 32 ground observatories to explore the processes that contribute to auroras.
Auroral Reconstruction CubeSwarm, aka ARCS, would use CubeSats and ground observatories to provide a comprehensive picture of the drivers and response of the auroral system to and from the magnetosphere. ARCS is led by Kristina Lynch at @Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. pic.twitter.com/k4tWN8L7uV— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) August 28, 2020
Solaris: Revealing the Mysteries of the Sun’s Poles
Solaris’ purpose would be to observe the solar poles and collect data on light, magnetic fields and movement on the sun’s surface. The data it collects would help scientists figure out how the sun’s magnetic fields evolve and move, and how those lead to period of great solar activity approximately every 11 years.
Solaris: Revealing the Mysteries of the Sun’s Poles would address fundamental questions of solar and stellar physics that can only be answered with a view of the Sun's poles. Solaris is led by Donald Hassler at the @SwRI in Boulder, Colorado. pic.twitter.com/aTX9qiaetY— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) August 28, 2020
NASA says it chose the potential missions based on their feasibility and that the cost for investigation for the two it ultimately picks will be capped at $250 million.