NASA’s Geotail Mission Experiences an Anomaly

Artistic representation of the Geotail spacecraft. The 3D image blue spacecraft is set against the dark back drop of space in the distance are small orbs representing planets and a bright white circle representing the Sun.
An artist’s concept of the Geotail spacecraft. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are determining how to move forward with the joint Geotail mission since discovering the spacecraft’s last operational data recorder has failed.

Originally, Geotail was equipped with two data recorders to collect the mission’s scientific data. One data recorder failed in 2012 after 20 years of gathering information about the plasma environment around Earth. The remaining data recorder continued collecting data for 10 more years until it experienced an anomaly on June 28, 2022.

The team at JAXA discovered the error with the recorder and have been performing tests to investigate the cause and extent of the damage. Ongoing attempts to recover the recorder have been unsuccessful. Without a functioning recorder, the science data from the U.S. instruments can no longer be collected or downlinked. NASA, ISAS, and JAXA are deciding the best path forward for the mission given the failure.

Geotail launched on July 24, 1992, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, with the primary goal of studying the structure and dynamics of the tail region of the Earth’s magnetosphere – the area of space surrounding Earth that is controlled by Earth’s magnetic field – using a comprehensive set of scientific instruments. With an elongated orbit, Geotail has spent the last 30 years sailing through the invisible boundaries of the magnetosphere, gathering data on the physical process at play there. Geotail has made many scientific breakthroughs, including helping scientists better understand what causes material from the Sun to pass into the magnetosphere. It has also made discoveries outside its intended scope, such as identifying oxygen, silicon, sodium, and aluminum in the lunar atmosphere.

By Mara Johnson-Groh
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Honoring the Father of Heliophysics

I recently had the honor of giving the laureate lecture on behalf of Eugene “Gene” Parker, winner of the Crafoord Prize in Astronomy. It was one of the biggest moments of my career. It was also one of the hardest.

Photo of Nicky Fox presenting the laureate lecture on behalf of Eugene Parker
NASA’s Heliophysics Division Director Nicola Fox presented the Crafoord Prize laureate lecture on behalf of Eugene Parker in Lund, Sweden, in April 2020. Photo credit: Michelle Loh

Gene received the award in 2020 “for pioneering and fundamental studies of the solar wind and magnetic fields from stellar to galactic scales,” however, due to the pandemic, the official prize ceremony in Lund, Sweden, was postponed for two years. Since Gene was unable to travel, a special ceremony at Gene’s home was hosted by the University of Chicago in November 2021 where I presented him with the Crafoord medal.

Photo of Nicky Fox with Gene Parker and the Crafoord Medal
NASA’s Heliophysics Division Director Nicola Fox presented Eugene Parker the Crafoord medal at a ceremony hosted by the University of Chicago in his home in November 2021. Photo Credit: Noah Loh

Gene was a remarkable man and I knew him personally, which should have made talking about him during the public lecture easier. During his time as a scientist, he authored four books and more than 400 scientific peer-reviewed papers – many as the sole author. He also won a host of awards and honors, including the prestigious and coveted Crafoord Prize.

The Crafoord Prize is the highest honor awarded in the field of astronomy. It is the Nobel Prize equivalent for the field and carries with it a cash prize of over $600,000.

Known as the father of heliophysics, Gene’s discoveries are foundational to what we know about space weather and how stars behave. His level of brilliance is rare – you see it once, maybe twice, in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. He described the discovery of the solar wind as “simple.” It was derived from just four lines of algebra.

Gene’s passing on March 15, 2022, made the assignment of giving the lecture on his behalf even harder. I lost a friend and mentor, Gene’s family lost a husband and father, and humanity lost a legend.

Two photos of Nicky Fox and Eric Parker
NASA’s Heliophysics Division Director Nicola Fox is pictured here with Eugene Parker’s son, Eric Parker at the 2022 Crafoord Symposium. Photo credit: Michelle Loh/Susan Parker

Since I knew Gene personally, it should have made talking about him easier. How exactly does one describe the person that discovered the solar wind and changed the course of astronomy with his magnetic field findings? How in the world do I accurately describe and articulate Gene’s genius? I desperately wanted to do it right, and as I wrote and rewrote what I was going to say I realized that words in and of themselves were inadequate.

Slideshow image credits: NASA/JHU APL/University of Chicago/Glenn Benson/Nicola Fox/Noah Loh/Eric Parker

In 2017, the Solar Probe Plus mission was renamed Parker Solar Probe in honor of Gene. It was the first time a NASA mission has ever been named for a living person. In 2018, I stood with Gene and we watched in awe (I screamed and cheered, and he stared silently mesmerized) as Gene’s namesake mission launched and began its journey. Since its launch, Parker has been continuously setting and breaking records, including fastest human-made object and closest human-made object to the Sun. It has studied comets, returned valuable data on the planet Venus, and provided new information about the dust near our Sun.

On April 28, 2021, Parker Solar Probe flew through the Sun’s upper atmosphere – the corona – and sampled particles and magnetic fields there. In other words, Parker Solar Probe “touched” the Sun. The mission named after Gene and that built upon his work touched the Sun.

During the laureate lecture for the Crafoord Symposium, I talked about Gene and what he meant to me. I also talked about Parker Solar Probe’s accomplishments. I realized that the science could say and do what I couldn’t – properly honor Gene. Parker Solar Probe is a one-of-a-kind mission that has accomplished feats beyond what the world thought was possible – and it’s not done yet. Gene Parker was a one-of-a-kind man that accomplished feats unimaginable in his time and his work will continue to be the foundation that produces bigger and bolder discoveries.

By Nicola Fox
Heliophysics Division Director, NASA HQ, Washington