NASA has begun a new mission to create a weather forecast for space. The SunRISE experiment ( Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment) is an experiment designed to track and better understand giant space weather storms caused by solar flares from our suns corona. In a statement released by NASA, the project will release six CubeSat satellites that are “about the size of a toaster oven” into a super-geosynchronous orbit around our earth.
The launch will happen no earlier than the 1st of July, 2023 and will cost NASA a whopping 62.6 million US dollars. However, NASA is using an ingenious money and fuel-saving method to bring the satellites up into their orbit called NASA Missions of opportunity. Where the six toaster sized satellites will join another launch in the process known as a hosted rideshare. The launch they are scheduled to join is on a commercial satellite provided by Maxar of Westminster.
“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, the more we know about how the Sun erupts with space weather events, the more we can mitigate their effects on spacecraft and astronauts.”Nicky Fox, director of NASA’s Heliophysics division
How does the array work?
The SunRISE array will capture radio images of low-frequency emissions from the suns corona and will send the data back to Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network. These images will aid NASA to form a three-dimensional map of particle emissions and the pattern of magnetic field lines reaching from the Sun. This will help determine what initiates and accelerates these giant jets of radiation and how they evolve as they expand outward into space. By tracing the radiation back to its origin, NASA hopes to develop a better understanding of these giant particle jets, and what accelerates them to such high velocities.
“Knowing which part of a coronal mass ejection is responsible for producing the particle radiation will help us understand how the acceleration happens.”Justin Kasper. Professor of Climate and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan
Although NASA can already detect solar flares, the earth’s ionosphere blocks out radiation which is vital to take these readings. At the moment with earth-based detectors, NASA doesn’t know if the solar flares they detect will be of a high enough energy to impact earth or space equipment and space travel. Therefore the SunRISE array will orbit about 35’000 kilometres above the earth’s ionosphere. In order to aid the quality of the data recorded each CubeSat would fly within 6 miles of one another and combine their data, acting as one larger device. This process called interferometry and is the same process which allowed the first-ever image of a black hole to be recorded with the event horizon telescope.
How will the array benefit us?
After the Mars curiosity rover completed its journey to the red planet, scientists were greeted with unwelcome news. The rover carried a particle detector on its journey and detected high levels of radiation, dangerous to any life making the same journey. This increased radiation from the solar flares can alter and permanently damage DNA. It can cause cancer, damage motor functions and behaviours, cause neurological disorders and could even result in death.
Luckily here on earth, we are protected by our ionosphere; a densely packed layer of ions and electrons which can deflect unwanted radiation from entering our planet. Although we are protected from the direct health issues from these flares on earth, our technology is not. Large flares can result in the shutdown of power grids and circuits. This can have widespread issues if certain circuitry is fried, such as rocket launches, missiles etc. Which could potentially result in large scale death and loss of assets.
By creating a ‘weather forecast’ for these particle bursts NASA can give warning allowing for dangerous and non-essential circuitry to be turned off as well as create safer precautions and flight plans for astronauts in orbit or even for the first colonizers going to Mars.
“It could also result in a unique warning system for whether an event will both produce radiation and release that radiation towards Earth or spacefaring astronauts.”Justin Kasper, Professor of Climate and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan.
In addition to these health and safety benefits, the array will help us get a better understanding of our star as well as local gas giants.