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NASA announces two new missions to study the sun

The sun affects the space environment in more ways than just being a source of heat and light. It also gives off radiation and charged particles which interact with Earth’s magnetic fields in a complex phenomenon called space weather. This can affect both the health of astronauts traveling beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetosphere and electronics like satellites in high orbits. To learn more about the sun and how it affects the space environment, NASA has recently announced two new space missions: The Multi-slit Solar Explorer (MUSE) and HelioSwarm.

“MUSE and HelioSwarm will provide new and deeper insight into the solar atmosphere and space weather,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, in a statement. “These missions not only extend the science of our other heliophysics missions — but they also provide a unique perspective and a novel approach to understanding the mysteries of our star.”

A mid-level solar flare that peaked at 8:13 p.m. EDT on Oct. 1, 2015, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.
A mid-level solar flare that peaked at 8:13 p.m. EDT on Oct. 1, 2015, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. NASA/SDO

MUSE will be a spacecraft in orbit around Earth armed with two instruments that look in the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) wavelength — an EUV spectrograph and an EUV context imager. It will examine the sun’s corona in particular, looking at how the corona is heated and the outbursts of energy like flares or coronal mass ejections which cause space weather.

“MUSE will help us fill crucial gaps in knowledge pertaining to the Sun-Earth connection,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters. “It will provide more insight into space weather and complements a host of other missions within the heliophysics mission fleet.”

The other mission, HelioSwarm, will consist of a constellation of nine spacecraft which will work together to measure changes in the sun’s magnetic field and solar winds. These winds whip through the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, called the heliosphere, which stretches all the way out from the sun and beyond the planets of the solar system.

“The technical innovation of HelioSwarm’s small satellites operating together as a constellation provides the unique ability to investigate turbulence and its evolution in the solar wind,” said Peg Luce, deputy director of the Heliophysics Division.

NASA has not yet announced when either of the missions is scheduled for launch.

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