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Technology & Entrepreneurship

SwRI, NASA To Study Solar Wind With SA-Built Satellites.

Courtesy of Southwest Research Institute

Satellites built in San Antonio will revolutionize our understanding of solar wind and space weather — the energy discharge that blanked out communications satellites, damaged power grids and affected flights.

The PUNCH, or Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere, mission will launch four suitcase-sized satellites to watch the sun from Earth’s orbit and measure how solar wind works. NASA announced the mission on Thursday.

The satellites, which will be built at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, will track the solar wind and energy from the corona through the entire solar system. It will turn those observations into models for space weather.

“We anticipate that this will revolutionize the way we predict space weather in the same way that weather satellites revolutionized the way we predict hurricane landings and so forth,” said Craig DeForest principal investigator for the mission, and a solar physicist for SwRI’s Boulder office.

SwRI built instruments and is studying science on NASA’s 2018 Parker Solar Probe, the historic exploration that passed closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft. It will continue observing the star for the next several years. The mission also deals with predicting solar weather, but it is focused on helping predict major solar events.

PUNCH will be the first to observe solar wind throughout the solar system and how it evolves after it leaves the Sun’s Corona.

“They start to create swirls and puffs and all kinds of shapes as they get further from the Earth,” said Ronnie Killough, project manager for the PUNCH mission and program director at SwRI-San Antonio.

The visualizations PUNCH creates will assist scientists not only in space weather prediction, but in helping explain exactly what these tenuously connected charged particles, called solar wind, are.

“[It’s like] what you have on the Earth trying to describe what wind is. You can feel it. But you can’t see it,” he said. PUNCH will remove the abstractions for physical photos and videos.

Credit Courtesy Southwest Research Institute
SwRI developed and prototyped the Wide Field Imager for the PUNCH mission. The dark baffles in the top recess allow the instrument to image objects over a thousand times fainter than the Milky Way.

SwRI has built instruments and computers for space craft for decades, but this is only the second mission that SwRI has built the entire satellite. Their other effort was 2016’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, or CYGNSS, the eight-satellite constellation that allowed scientists to peer inside the eye of hurricanes to gather wind speed data from space.

“People were looking forward to doing another one. They were excited to do another one,” Killough said.

The mission will cost no more than $165 million and launch at the earliest in 2022.

Paul Flahive can be found Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.