NASA has selected Southwest Research Institute to lead a miocrosatellite mission to launch as early as 2022 to study how the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, connects with the interplanetary medium.
The mission, known as the “Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere,” or PUNCH mission, is a landmark Small Explorers Program mission that will image beyond the Sun’s outer corona.
SwRI is headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, and also has offices in Boulder.
The mission will consist of a constellation of four suitcase-sized microsatellites or “microsats,” according to a news release. They will orbit Earth in formation, providing the first global images of how the solar corona infuses the solar wind with mass and energy.
“The vacuum of space between the planets is not completely empty — it is actually filled with a tenuous, hypersonic ‘solar wind’ that streams out from the corona and affects spacecraft and planets — including our own,” said PUNCH Principal Investigator Craig DeForest, a scientist and program director in SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division.
“PUNCH will observe the ‘no-man’s land’ between the outer solar corona and the solar wind, giving us our first clear images of the entire system connecting the Sun and Earth.”
The mission will track and image the solar wind as it emerges from the solar corona, transitions to interplanetary space and streams through the solar system, bathing the planets and other solar system bodies, the release stated. The measurements will show how and why the material emanating from the star becomes gusty and turbulent on its way toward Earth.