NASA will be launching a set of six miniature spacecraft to study the sun, in the hopes of understanding more about how space weather and solar storms develop.
The Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment, or SunRISE, will consist of a set of six small spacecraft that will be launched into geosynchronous Earth orbit high above the planet’s atmosphere. Stationed approximately 10 km (6 miles) apart, the spacecraft will work together to capture radio images of the emissions given off by the sun, which can be used to create 3D maps of solar particle bursts. These emissions given out by the sun travel across the solar system and can affect satellites and communications on Earth and can pose a danger to astronauts or electronic equipment in space.
NASA selected the SunRISE project for study in August 2017, then decided to continue further study in February 2019. Now, the project has been deemed ready to begin design, building, and launch, with a total budget of $62.6 million and an aim to launch the spacecraft by July 1, 2023.
“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,” Nicky Fox, director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, said in a statement. “The more we know about how the sun erupts with space weather events, the more we can mitigate their effects on spacecraft and astronauts.”
The SunRISE spacecraft will communicate using NASA’s Deep Space Network, which is currently being upgraded to allow more efficient communications with Mars and other distant targets.
As well as mapping particle bursts, the spacecraft will also create the first map of the sun’s magnetic field lines, which twist and tangle as the sun rotates and different parts of its plasma move at different rates. These tangles create very strong magnetic fields in some areas, and weaker ones in others. It is thought that these areas of strong local magnetic fields are what create solar storms, and also contribute to the sun’s strange 11-year sunspot cycle.