NASA’s latest mission to study the sun will launch in just a few weeks — this time, with technology aboard that was designed by researchers at the University of New Hampshire.
The Solar Orbiter will blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in early February on an international cooperative mission by the European Space Agency and NASA. Scientists will use the orbiter to study the heliosphere, a large bubble of charged particles that surrounds the sun.
The orbiter will gather data about the sun’s magnetic field, the heliosphere, and solar eruptions with the help of a particle detector that was partially developed by UNH researchers.
UNH physics professor Antoinette Galvin, who is a lead UNH co-investigator on one of the particle detectors, said she hopes the oribter’s findings will help scientists predict solar storms that may impact humans and technology.
“The Solar Orbiter is unique from other missions in that it will focus on the higher latitudes of the sun and will have the ability to co-rotate with the sun and fix on points of interest for longer periods of time, providing more detailed information about specific regions,” Galvin said.
Forty-three faculty, staff, and students from UNH helped develop a portion of the time-of-flight subsection on the orbiter’s heavy ion sensor.
The university’s Space Science Center Assembly Lab and Morse Hall Machine Shop helped build parts of the subsection, test prototypes of it in space-like conditions, and perform other tests to ensure it can help properly detect space particles and survive launch.
Galvin said the subsection is just under the size of a shoe box.
“Small volumes are critical on spaceflight missions, because each facet of the spacecraft bus only has so much area," Galvin said. “The smaller you are, the more science instruments can be on the same payload. This small size actually makes the design more challenging.”
The ion sensor will recognize particles found in solar winds and determine which part of the sun they originate from by collecting data on their charged state. The sensor is a piece of the solar wind analyzer, which is one of 10 instruments on board the orbiter.
The heavy ion sensor was created in collaboration between UNH, the University of Bern, Switzerland, the University of Michigan, the Southwest Research Institute, and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Researchers at the university are also working on computer software programs that will eventually analyze the data the orbiter collects, Galvin said.