NASA selected two proposals for demonstrating small satellite technologies in a bid to improve space observations and study in the deep space, which may help the space agency develop better models for predicting space weather that affects astronauts and spacecraft.
Both the proposals were selected on the basis of the potential technology and science value and the feasibility of development plans. They are funded at $400,000 for nine-month mission concept studies. These proposals support the US space agency’s heliophysics program that seeks a better understanding of the nature of the space throughout our solar system and find out how it responds to the constant outpouring of energy and particles from the Sun and how it interacts with planetary atmospheres.
The SETH program will be investigated by Antti Pulkkinen at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt in Maryland. It would be demonstrating two technologies. One will be an optical communications technology for small satellites and CubeSats which is comparatively less complex than the current systems and that could make a hundredfold rise in the deep space data rates while reducing the burden on NASA’s Deep Space Network. Such a technology can be helpful in supporting future small satellite constellations which require high data rate communications systems, NASA explained in a press announcement.
The second technology detects the solar energetic neutral atoms which are basically the fast-moving atoms that are flowing from the Sun and do not have a charge and also an array of waves and other particles that erupt from the Sun. It is called the HELio Energetic Neutral Atom (HELENA) detector, and the instrument provides observations that can provide advanced warnings of potential space radiation threats to the astronauts.
Solar Cruiser is principally investigated by Les Johnson at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This investigation also demonstrates two technologies. First one is a nearly 18,000-square foot solar sail will be demonstrating the ability to use the radiation from the Sun as a propulsion system. This type of system can provide the views of the Sun which is not accessible easily with technology currently available.
The other one is the coronagraph instrument, which would be enabling simultaneous measurements of the magnetic field structure of the Sun and velocity of coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Such giant explosions of solar material are ejected into space and these can set off space weather storms which at their worst, interfere with utility grids on Earth. Improving the data-collection technology in this area is particularly useful for advance warning systems for at-risk infrastructure on Earth.
At the end of the nine-month period, one of the proposals will be selected by NASA to launch as a secondary payload with the space agency’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) in October 2024. Through rideshare initiative by NASA, it will be accompanied by two other science missions–a NASA Heliophysics Science Mission to study the fundamental nature of space and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) space weather forecasting mission.
According to Peg Luce, deputy director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, it is the first time that the space agency’s heliophysics program has funded such kind of technology demonstration. “Providing the opportunity to mature and test technologies in deep space is a crucial step towards incorporating new techniques into future missions,” she said in a statement.
The entire funding of these missions come from the Heliophysics Solar Terrestrial Probes program managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt in Maryland.