SmallStats will help humans understand the Sun’s behavior

NASA has chosen two different proposals to demonstrate how SmallStats or small satellite technologies can improve how scientists can observe deep space and produce necessary instruments out of those observations, which will allow us to peer farther into the unknown universe.

Small satellites can be used for anything — from collecting images and videos of Earth to exploring the Solar System. They are the mechanoid rovers that endure the unknown, which assists scientists down on Earth to have a better view of what lies beyond.

As technology improves, NASA wants to push the capabilities of these SmallStats even further; the agency is employing the help and resources of two different project proposals to demonstrate this action.

The new projects could yield results that would help build models that would be able to successfully predict space weather events — a necessary feature in today’s space exploration that would ensure the safety of astronauts and spacecraft.

Largely significant in the first two proposals NASA approved and funded, SmallStats would be able to determine cosmic events as a result of the often unpredictable behavior of our galaxy’s Sun.

“This is the first time that our heliophysics program has funded this kind of technology demonstration,” said Peg Luce, deputy director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. “Providing the opportunity to mature and test technologies in deep space is a crucial step towards incorporating new techniques into future missions,” he added.

The project proposals function under NASA’s heliophysics program, which the agency says that “seeks to understand better the nature of space throughout the solar system and how it changes in response to the constant outpouring of energy and particles from the Sun and how it interacts with planetary atmospheres.”

In other words, the proposals will also be able to give a better understanding of how today’s scientists understand and interact with the Sun — our galaxy’s largest energy source.

NASA says that the two proposals’ potential technology, scientific value, as well as feasibility, were the criteria used for the selection that granted them funding of $400,000 that would be included within a nine-month mission concept studies. 

The first project is the Science-Enabling Technologies for Heliophysics (SETH) proposal, which will demonstrate two new ideas with how we approach SmallStats.

Primarily, the SETH proposal aims to improve data communications between satellite constellations by using optical communications technology; while the second is through detecting particles and waves, which the Sun naturally emits, particularly energetic neutral atoms that do not have a charge.

This could be useful for detecting and predicting space radiation, which can be harmful to astronauts and equipment, and in some instances, to people on Earth.

On the other hand, the second proposal is Solar Cruiser. It will employ the use of an 18,000 square foot solar sail to travel close to the Sun and measure its magnetic field.

Astronomers have long identified that the Sun has random energy outbursts — in the form of coronal mass ejections — which can easily send solar material flying away from the Sun’s surface and into space. Although difficult, it is not impossible that these harmful materials may reach Earth.

The project aims to improve predictions of these ejections and possibly prevent it from ever reaching Earth in the first place.

The fact the satellites are small makes the projects more affordable, NASA says. Thus, increasing the chance for these types of projects to receive funding and potentially get real-life testing.

“By focusing on SmallSats and capitalizing on the cost savings of sharing a launch, we can test and advance cutting-edge technologies at a reasonable price,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.

“We are leading the charge in using this innovative solution to test new mission paradigms and technologies and, in turn, to reap great rewards researching our neighborhood in space,” Zurbuchen said.

The winning proposal will launch as a payload aboard the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe in October 2024.

NASA has stated the winning project could become a vital part of its long-term plans, which include a human presence on the Moon and an eventual manned journey to Mars.

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