Two new missions to explore the Sun and Earth’s auroras could vastly improve our understanding of the complex interactions responsible for potentially dangerous space weather.
Auroras seen at our planet’s northern and southern high latitudes can be very beautiful, but the phenomena and processes responsible for these dramatic light shows are known to interfere with our communication signals and utility grids. Experts fear that severe space weather, in the form of powerful geomagnetic storms, will do much worse, knocking out handheld devices, fleets of satellites, and transformers responsible for transmitting electricity through power grids.
A geomagnetic storm of this scale hasn’t struck Earth since the mid-19th century, but scientists have reason to believe we’ll experience a similar event at some point in the future. Trouble is, we’re not very good at predicting this sort of stuff, whether it’s the mundane day-to-day space weather or the scary kind that happens once every 100 years.
That’s where these two new heliophysics missions come in, as they’ll help us to better “understand the Sun and Earth as an interconnected system,” according to NASA. To do so, the new satellites will investigate the physics behind such things as solar winds, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections, the latter of which are responsible for geomagnetic storms. Insights from these missions will improve our forecasting abilities, giving us a potential head’s up to some incoming stormy weather.
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For the EUVST mission, or Extreme Ultraviolet High-Throughput Spectroscopic Telescope Epsilon Mission, a spacecraft will analyze the spectrum of our star’s extreme ultraviolet radiation. It’ll study how solar wind emerges from the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, how stellar material propagates into space. Scientists will use this data to determine the ways in which these processes affect the solar system, including Earth’s atmosphere.
This “next-generation solar-observing satellite” will have the highest resolution and sensitivity of any previous UV spectrometer, according to the project website. These capabilities could untangle the different ways in which magnetic and plasma processes produce coronal heating and tremendous releases of energy.
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will lead the EUVST mission while working with partners in the United States and Europe. NASA will contribute $55 million to the project, which will cover a UV detector, parts for the spectrograph, a guide telescope, software, and an imaging system to contextualize spectrographic measurements. Harry Warren from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington will serve as the principal investigator. Launch of EUVUST is expected in 2026.
The second mission, the Electrojet Zeeman Imaging Explorer, or EZIE, will involve three cubesats in Earth orbit. EZIE, with a budget of $53.3 million, will study the electric currents in Earth’s atmosphere associated with auroral activity and our planet’s magnetosphere. The satellites will investigate the auroral electrojet—an electric current that reaches into the magnetosphere and zips through the atmosphere at altitudes between 60 and 90 miles (97-145 km)—to determine how and why it changes over time.
Jeng-Hwa Yee at the Johns Hopkins University will serve as the principal investigator.
“Despite decades of research, we still don’t understand the basic configuration of the electrical currents which are central to the interactions between Earth and the surrounding space,” said Yee in a Johns Hopkins statement. “This is a problem of universal importance since it applies to any magnetized body such as Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter—but it also has practical importance since these currents have a profound impact on our technologies in space and here on Earth.”
Launch of EZIE is expected around June 2024.
“We are very pleased to add these new missions to the growing fleet of satellites that are studying our Sun-Earth system using an amazing array of unprecedented observational tools,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a NASA statement.
It’ll be years before we see the results of these missions, but it’s important that we do this space-based heliophysics, both for scientific and practical reasons. Research from 2017 suggested that a sufficiently powerful geomagnetic storm could cost the United States upwards of $40 billion per day as the result of damaged technology and global-scale blackouts.
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