Tiny satellite set to monitor particles streaming from the Sun

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The CubeSat to study Solar Particles, or CuSP, will launch from the inaugural flight of NASA’s Space Launch System in late 2018. CuSP will observe particles and magnetic fields from the Sun on their way toward Earth. – NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA plans to launch a tiny CubeSat, not much bigger than a box of cereal, deep into interplanetary space to monitor the particles and magnetic fields streaming from the Sun.

Just a bit bigger than a box of cereal, one of the first CubeSats to travel in interplanetary space, will be NASA’s miniature space science station, orbiting the Sun.

The mission, labelled with one of the space agency's laboured acronyms, CuSP (CubeSat to study Solar Particles), will be launched on NASA's new Space Launch System.

That will become NASA's main launch vehicle for deep space missions including the manned voyage to Mars. It is due for its first unmanned tests in 2018. The CuSP mission is slated for later that year.

"CuSP will be able to observe events in space hours before they reach Earth," said Mihir Desai, the principal investigator for the project.

"Such interplanetary observations would give us significant insight into what drives space weather, helping scientists to improve their simulations."

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CubeSats are small satellites, about the size of a cereal box, which provide an inexpensive way to access space. – NASA

The micro-satellite will carry three instruments – the Suprathermal Ion Spectrograph, or SIS, to detect and characterize low-energy solar energetic particles; the Miniaturized Electron and Proton Telescope, or MERiT, that will count high-energy solar energetic particles; and the Vector Helium Magnetometer, or VHM, that will measure the strength and direction of magnetic fields.

It is envisaged that the CubeSat will be joined by many more, providing a network of space weather stations.

Currently, measurements of the space environment come from a dozen or so satellites in one of two basic orbits – circling either Earth or the L1 Lagrange point, a point between Earth and the sun about a million miles from us.

“Right now, it’s like we’re trying to understand weather for the entire Pacific Ocean with just a handful of weather stations,” said Eric Christian, lead Goddard scientist for CuSP. 

“If you had, say, 20 CubeSats in different orbits, you could really start to understand the space environment in three dimensions,” he said.

Related report: New eye in the sky: DSCOVR to watch over Earth and Sun

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