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Six tiny satellites will form a huge virtual telescope to study space weather

As we send more and more satellites into orbit and want to send both human and robotic explorers further out into the solar system, one problem we’re still figuring out is how to deal with space weather. The sun puts out vast amounts of radiation, and sometimes its activity can peak in events like solar flares and coronal mass ejections which send charged particles racing out through space. This radiation can interfere with electronics and be harmful to human health, and when it interacts with the area around Earth we call it space weather.

Now, NASA has plans to study hazardous space weather events in more detail than ever before, using a group of six small satellites in a project called SunRISE. By working in unison, the satellites will be able to work like a 6-mile-wide telescope even though each one is just the size of a toaster, and they will be able to get more detailed data about space weather than we can get from the ground. The first of six SunRISE satellites was recently completed, and the project is set for launch in 2024.

The first of six SunRISE SmallSats is shown here at a Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory clean room being worked on by engineers. Pointed toward the camera is the SmallSat’s Sun-facing side, including its fully deployed solar arrays.
The first of six SunRISE SmallSats is shown here at a Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory clean room being worked on by engineers. Pointed toward the camera is the SmallSat’s Sun-facing side, including its fully deployed solar arrays. SDL/Allison Bills

“It’s really exciting to see the space vehicles coming together,” said Jim Lux, SunRISE project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “In a couple of years, these satellites will form a vast space telescope observing the Sun in a way that is impossible from Earth’s surface.”

The plan is for the six satellites to orbit in a formation to create a virtual telescope, orbiting at a distance of around 22,000 miles. The principle is similar to how many smaller telescopes on Earth are arranged into powerful arrays. They will detect bursts of radio waves from the sun’s corona and relay this information to Earth, where it can be used to make detailed 3D maps of the emissions coming from the sun.

“The ultimate goal of the mission is to help scientists better understand the mechanisms driving these explosive space weather events,” said Justin Kasper, SunRISE principal investigator at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “These high-energy solar particles can jeopardize unprotected astronauts and technology. By tracking the radio bursts associated with these events, we can be better prepared and informed.”

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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