This solar tour stop may seem empty, but there’s more than meets the eye.
Empty space, full of plasma
If you look closely, the space between the planets is filled with dust, particles, magnetic fields and a mysterious substance called plasma. Hear from scientists Doug Rowland and Don Gurnett as we journey through this mysterious and electrifying substance.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know space is weird. But just how weird might surprise you. Space is dominated by invisible electromagnetic forces that we typically don’t feel. It’s also full of a bizarre state of matter that we don’t usually experience on Earth.
Just as dust gathers in corners and along bookshelves in our homes, dust piles up in interplanetary space, too.
Dust is dispersed throughout the entire solar system, but it collects in rings around the orbits of Earth and Venus. By studying this dust, scientists seek clues to understanding the birth of planets and the composition of all that we see in the solar system.
Greetings from Lagrange Point 1, or L1, the 6th stop on our solar tour! This is a special place between Earth and the Sun where their gravitational forces are balanced. It’s a great spot for spacecraft because they’ll stay put between the two objects and orbit with Earth, no fuel required.
Q&A with a solar expert
The spacecraft with us here at L1 play a key role in helping us understand the structure of the Sun. Learn more about studying the Sun from afar with solar scientist Ruizhu Chen.
There’s a lot happening on the surface of our Sun, too, and L1 offers a great view of that as well. Equipped with a special tool to see the Sun’s outer atmosphere, NASA’s SOHO mission has been watching the Sun for over 25 years from L1. Check out this video for a glimpse of our star through the decades.
That’s a wrap on our time at L1, but in theory we could stay here forever.
We’re now halfway through the Solar Tour before our big announcement. Come back tomorrow for our next stop!
Today on our solar tour, we’re exploring the magnetosphere – the last stop before heading into space! Earth’s magnetosphere is created by our planet’s molten core and protects us from the solar wind, the constant stream of radiation and charged particles coming from the Sun!
We’re not alone (magnetically speaking)
Earth isn’t the only object in our solar system with a magnetosphere! This protective shield may be essential for the development of conditions friendly to life, so finding magnetospheres around other planets is a big step toward determining if they could support life.
In this story, learn how not all magnetospheres are created equal.
Earth has a magnetosphere – and so does our Sun!
Before becoming a Delta State University professor and director of the Wiley Planetarium, solar scientist Maria Weber studied how magnetism makes its way to the Sun’s surface by connecting what we see on the surface to what’s happening below. This could help scientists predict solar storms, protecting people and technology on Earth and in space.
Early this morning, there was a total solar eclipse across Antarctica!
During a total solar eclipse, the Moon blocks out the Sun, creating the illusion of night during the day and a breathtaking sight in our sky.
Join NASA Edge at 1:30 p.m. EST on NASA TV to see the eclipse and learn more: https://go.nasa.gov/3nTvrOA
Learning from eclipses
Eclipses have played a major role in scientific discoveries, from the Sun’s structure to the element helium. The corona – the Sun’s outer atmosphere – normally can’t be seen because of the bright solar surface, but during an eclipse, the corona emerges, offering unique science opportunities.
The corona up close
What we can see from the Sun’s corona during an eclipse can teach us a lot about our star. Imagine what we’d learn if we actually touched the corona? NASA has sent Parker Solar Probe to the Sun to do just that. ?
Eclipsing right along…
While today’s eclipse may be over, you still have opportunities to watch eclipses in person! An annular solar eclipse will cross the U.S. in 2023, and a total solar eclipse will cross the U.S. in 2024. For now, see what’s next in our #SolarTour by joining in tomorrow.
Our solar tour begins on Earth. From here, one star shines brighter than all the rest. It’s the closest star and the center of our solar system: our Sun. Earth is in the Goldilocks zone, just the right distance from the Sun to be habitable.
A mission to touch the Sun
We can answer some questions about the Sun from 93 million miles away on Earth, but to learn more, we knew we’d have to venture to our nearest star. In 2018, NASA launched Parker Solar Probe, our mission to touch the Sun.
Why won’t it melt?
Flying close to the Sun is risky business (just ask Icarus), but engineers were up to the task. Check out this video to learn how they built a spacecraft that won’t melt, even when it’s heated to temperatures up to 2500° F. Hint: don’t use wax!
Now, we’re heading south to catch a special event where day becomes night and the Moon is the star of the show. Can you guess what we’ll see?
The Sun has an immense influence in space. It shapes and impacts our entire solar system in ways that we are still trying to understand.
To help unravel some of the Sun’s biggest mysteries, NASA launched Parker Solar Probe in 2018 to study the Sun up close. This year, the mission has big news!
Follow along on our Solar Tour: Starting tomorrow, Dec. 3, we will begin our 12-day journey from Earth to the Sun. Each day, we’ll make pit stops to learn how our Sun influences different places across the solar system. The grand tour will end with Parker Solar Probe’s big announcement on Dec. 14 at our final destination!
By Miles Hatfield NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
New results from NASA satellite data show that space weather – the changing conditions in space driven by the Sun – can heat up Earth’s hottest and highest atmospheric layer.
The findings, published in July in Geophysical Research Letters, used data from NASA’s Global Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD mission. Launched in 2018 aboard the SES-14 communications satellite, GOLD looks down on Earth’s upper atmosphere from what’s known as geosynchronous orbit, effectively “hovering” over the western hemisphere as Earth turns. GOLD’s unique position gives it a stable view of one entire face of the globe – called the disk – where it scans the temperature of Earth’s upper atmosphere every 30 minutes.
“We found results that were not previously possible because of the kind of data that we get from GOLD,” said Fazlul Laskar, who led the research. Dr. Laskar is a research associate at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
From its perch some 22,000 miles (35,400 kilometers) above us, GOLD looks down on the thermosphere, a region of Earth’s atmosphere between about 53 and 373 miles (85 and 600 kilometers) high. The thermosphere is home to the aurora, the International Space Station, and the highest temperatures in Earth’s atmosphere, up to 2,700 °F (1,500 °C). It reaches such incredible temperatures by absorbing the Sun’s high-energy X-rays and extreme ultraviolet rays, heating the thermosphere and stopping these types of light from making it to the ground.
But the new findings point to some heating not driven by sunlight, but instead by the solar wind – the particles and magnetic fields continuously escaping the Sun.
The solar wind is always blowing, but stronger gusts can disturb Earth’s magnetic field, inducing so-called geomagnetic activity. Laskar and his collaborators compared days with more geomagnetic activity to days with less, and found an increase of over 160 °F (90 °C) in thermospheric temperatures. Magnetic disturbances, driven by the Sun, were heating up Earth’s hottest atmospheric layer.
Some amount of heating was expected near Earth’s poles, where a weak point in our magnetic field allows some solar wind to pour into our upper atmosphere. But GOLD’s data showed temperature increases across the whole globe – even near the equator, far from any incoming solar wind.
Laskar and colleagues suggest it has to do with changing circulation patterns. There’s a swirling of air high above us — a global circulation that pushes air from the equator up to the poles and back around at lower altitudes. As the solar wind pours into the thermosphere near the poles, the added energy can alter this circulation pattern, driving winds and atmospheric compression that can raise temperatures even far away.
Changing circulation might also underlie another surprise finding. GOLD’s data showed the amount of heat added depended on the time of day. The team discovered a stronger effect in the morning hours compared to that in the afternoon. They suspect that geomagnetic activity might especially strengthen the circulation during the night and early morning hours, though this explanation awaits confirmation in further studies.
Laskar was most impressed with the subtlety of the changes they could detect in GOLD’s data.
“We used to believe that only prominent geomagnetic events could change the thermosphere,” Laskar said. “We are now seeing that even minor activity can have an impact.”
With its steady stream of temperature measurements, GOLD is painting a picture of an upper atmosphere much more sensitive to the magnetic conditions around Earth than previously thought.
NASA’s SunRISE mission — short for the Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment — passed a mission review on Sept. 8, 2021, moving the mission into its next phase.
“SunRISE will detect and study eruptions of radio waves from the Sun that often precede major solar events containing high energy particle radiation,” said Justin Kasper, SunRISE principal investigator at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Knowing when and how solar storms produce intense radiation will help us better prepare and protect our astronauts and technology.”
The review, Key Decision Point C, evaluated the mission’s preliminary design and project plan to achieve launch by its target launch readiness date. With the successful review, SunRISE now moves into Phase C, which includes the final design of the mission and fabrication of the spacecraft and instruments. The six spacecraft will then go through final assembly and testing before their launch readiness date of April 2024.
Consisting of six miniature solar-powered spacecraft known as CubeSats, the SunRISE constellation will operate together as one large telescope — forming the first space-based imaging low radio frequency interferometer — to create 3D maps pinpointing how giant bursts of energetic particles originate from the Sun and evolve as they expand outward into space. The mission will also map, for the first time, how the Sun’s magnetic field extends into interplanetary space — a key factor that drives where and how storms move throughout the solar system. Data from SunRISE will be collected and transmitted to Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network. The six CubeSats will span roughly six miles across and fly slightly above geosynchronous orbit at 22,000 miles from Earth’s surface.
“The unique formation of the CubeSats gives us a detailed view of the Sun that will help us figure out how high energy particle radiation is initiated and accelerated near the Sun and how it affects interplanetary space,” said Joseph Lazio, SunRISE project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Studying the radio waves that precede solar particle storms could potentially help us create an early warning system.”
SunRISE is a Mission of Opportunity under the Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Explorers Program Office. Missions of Opportunity are part of the Explorers Program, which is the oldest continuous NASA program designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD) astrophysics and heliophysics programs. The program is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for SMD, which conducts a wide variety of research and scientific exploration programs for Earth studies, space weather, the solar system and universe.
SunRISE will be built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University and be a hosted payload on a commercial spacecraft provided by Maxar of Westminster, Colorado. Once in orbit, the host spacecraft will deploy the six SunRISE spacecraft, place the CubeSats into their orbits, and then continue its prime mission. SunRISE will launch no earlier than April 2024 and no later than September 2025 depending on the schedule of the commercial host spacecraft.
SunRISE is led by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
By Joy Ng NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.