NASA is now considering two major proposals that have mission specifics aimed at studying solar space weather phenomenon. This will be a preliminary research objective that will directly affect future manned missions beyond the protective shell of Earth’s magnetosphere.
Human spaceflight experience and knowledge have increased over the decades through our research within the ISS, as well as the old pioneering missions of the Cold War era. Despite this, long term effects of space weather phenomena, such as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), or simple direct exposure to cosmic rays is still a large unknown. With various missions being developed for the Moon and Mars now underway, the need to learn about these phenomena and its effects on traveling astronauts is now more important than ever.
Thus, NASA is currently considering two new proposals that are going to use a fleet of small satellites to directly observe how sun-based space weather will affect future spacecraft and its crew, presumably during the long voyages to the Moon, as well as far beyond Earth.
Science-Enabling Technologies for Heliophysics (SETH)
This first proposal is primarily designed to transmit data using lasers, which will be much faster, and in terms of signal integrity, more efficient, that low-power radio-based signals typically used between deep space satellites and ground-based Earth stations. As for its instrumentation, the system will attempt to detect different kinds of EM wave types and particle emissions, to be installed on a fleet of cubesats.
One particular important objective of SETH is the detection of energetic neutral atoms (ENAs), or particles ejected from the Sun at considerably luminar velocities but doesn’t carry a charge. This could potentially be the primary source of ionizing radiation for spacecraft crews, and thus must be studied further to develop vehicle designs that could compensate for its existence.
Additionally, the choice to use laser-based communications will also divert fewer resources for NASA’s Deep Space Network, which is already quite swamped with lots of different concurrent missions coordinating a wide array of still-active satellites around the Solar System today.
Perhaps following up on the success last month of the second solar sail experiment of the Planetary Society, the Lightsail 2, Solar Cruiser will be installed with a wider 18,000 square feet (1670 sq. meters) solar sail, which it will use to freely navigate the Solar System. Like the SETH, it will study the Sun under views and perspectives that were not possible with previous probe missions.
Its main instrumentation will be a coronagraph, which is designed to measure the Sun’s magnetic field, as well as the velocity of particles within CMEs.
Although the official mission profile of both proposals state that observation, tracking, and study will be the primary objectives, this technically goes on to include being a warning system. After all, the proposed launch date of these missions is set as early as 2024. This would be well within the timeline of other proposals from other companies and entities aiming to send humans once again outside our planet’s magnetosphere.