Walkin' on the sun

Two new NASA missions will help protect Earth from the Sun's raging outbursts

"new insight into our star.”

The Sun has a way of messing with us. Although it fuels our very existence, the Sun also has a tendency to threaten our modern life with its raging solar storms.

Back in 1859, an outburst of plasma from the Sun's corona, now known as the Carrington Event, knocked out telegraph systems all over the world. As some telegraph operators tried to send and receive messages, they received electric shocks. Today, if such an event were to occur again, it would seriously disrupt our power grid and interfere with the GPS systems that inform much of modern movement.

Thankfully, scientists are working hard to better predict when these solar storms might occur. This week, NASA approved two new missions aimed at understanding what creates space weather, how the Sun affects the Solar System, and can so effectively mess with our Earthly technology.

The two new missions are focused on the field of heliophysics, which is the study of the interaction between the Sun and the Solar System.

They have long names, but like much with NASA, they are each paired with a sort-of memorable acronym. There's the Extreme Ultraviolet High-Throughput Spectroscopic Telescope Epsilon Mission, or EUVST, and the Electrojet Zeeman Imaging Explorer, or EZIE.

Both missions aim to help scientists understand the physics of solar wind. The more we know about it, the better we can predict flare-up events that could seriously disrupt life on Earth, and astronauts in space.

Extreme Ultraviolet High-Throughput Spectroscopic Telescope Epsilon Mission (EUVST)

The first mission is led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), with NASA contributing to the mission's hardware.

EUVST is a solar telescope that will observe how the atmosphere of the Sun releases solar wind and causes solar eruptions.

Solar activity largely depends on the Sun's magnetic field. The Sun’s magnetic field goes through a periodic cycle in which the south and north poles essentially switch spots, and it takes another 11 years or so for them to switch back.

During its 11 year cycle, the Sun periodically ejects boiling-hot plasma, in the form of solar flares and solar wind, across the Solar System. These ejections can have an effect here on Earth, disrupting communications systems for example, or interfering with electricity.

Solar activity can cause magnetic storms in the Earth's upper atmosphere, which can affect power grids, satellites, and orbiting spacecraft and astronauts.

The Sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 8:13 p.m. EDT on Oct. 1, 2015. NASA

Once it launches in 2026, EUVST will take comprehensive UV spectroscopy measurements of the solar atmosphere at the highest level of detail to date, allowing scientists to figure out how different magnetic and plasma processes drive the heating of the Sun's corona and release solar energy, according to NASA.

The solar telescope will essentially observe the Sun as though it was a distant star, analyzing the spectrum of the Sun's extreme ultraviolet radiation in order to study the Sun's atmosphere in great detail.

In order to achieve that, EUVST was developed with higher sensitivity and resolution than any other spectrometer.

  • Launch date: 2026
  • Cost: $55 million
  • Mission lifespan: 2 years
  • Date first proposed: January, 2018
  • Main objective: Understand how solar wind is generated

Electrojet Zeeman Imaging Explorer (EZIE)

Meanwhile, the second approved mission will study electric currents in Earth’s atmosphere that link auroras to the Earth’s magnetosphere, or the region of space that surrounds our planet.

Set for launch in June, 2024, the Electrojet Zeeman Imaging Explorer (EZIE) is made up of three CubeSats, a miniature satellite shaped like a cube, that will observe the electric current circling through Earth’s atmosphere around 60-90 miles above the surface, extending into the planet's magnetosphere.

By doing so, scientists are hoping to witness the interaction between the solar wind and Earth's magnetosphere, the same process by which stunning auroras are created in our skies. While they make for a beautiful sight in our skies, aurora can also interfere with communications and radio signals, as well as orbiting spacecraft.

A view from the International Space Station of the aurora australis, or "southern lights."NASA

The mission will use the Auroral Electrojet Index, a global index that measures the magnetic activity in auroral zones, as well as measurements of ultraviolet light to study solar activity.

The EZIE mission will be led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

  • Launch date: June 2024
  • Cost: $53.3 million
  • Lifespan of mission: 2 years
  • Date first proposed: 2018

The two missions combined will lead to a new understanding of our Sun, as well the physics behind our host star's activity and how it affects us here on Earth.

“With these new missions, we’re expanding how we study the Sun, space, and Earth as an interconnected system,” Peg Luce, deputy director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

As scientists closely observe the intricate processes that drive solar weather, they are hoping to protect Earth from the Sun's occasional raging storms so that our satellite systems stay intact, and we don't lose connection while trying to find our way through Google Maps or worse, receive electric shocks while trying to operate our version of the telegraph system.

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