To stand on a coastal shore and watch how eagles, ravens, seagulls, and crows take flight in high winds. it’s an inspiring sight, to be sure. Additionally, it illustrates an important concept in aerial mechanics, like how the proper angling of wings can allow birds to exploit differences in wind speed to hover in mid-air. Similarly, birds can use these same differences in wind speed to gain bursts of velocity to soar and dive. These same lessons can be applied to space, where spacecraft could perform special maneuvers to pick up bursts of speed from “space weather” (solar wind).
This was the subject of a recent study led by researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. By circling between regions of the heliosphere with different wind speeds, they state, a spacecraft would be capable of “dynamic soaring” the same way avian species are. Such a spacecraft would not require propellant (which makes up the biggest mass fraction of conventional missions) and would need only a minimal power supply. Their proposal is one of many concepts for low-mass, low-cost missions that could become interplanetary (or interstellar) explorers.
A team led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) was recently selected to develop a solar sail spacecraft that would launch sometime in 2025. Known as the Solar Cruiser, this mission of opportunity measures 1653 m2 (~17790 ft2) in area and is about the same thickness as a human hair. Sponsored by the Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD) Heliophysics Division, this technology demonstrator will integrate several new solar sail technologies developed by various organizations to mature solar sail technology for future missions.
In a recent video released by NASA, we see engineers and industry partners at the MSFC in Huntsville, Alabama, unfurling a segment of the prototype solar sail. The video, taken on October 13th, shows how the teams used two 30.5 m (100-foot) lightweight composite booms to unfurl a 400 m2 (4,300 ft2) quadrant of the solar sail prototype for the first time. Once realized, the Solar Cruiser demonstrator will validate technologies that enable future missions to study the Sun, its interaction with Earth, and its extended atmosphere (aka. heliosphere).
The sun is currently sleeping. Its surface and corona are relatively quiet as it prepares to ramp up for an expected phase of high activity in 2025. This past October, the ESA’s Solar Orbiter was able to sneak in a close-up peak at the Sun as it slumbers.
On March 25, 2022, the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter spacecraft closed in on the Sun, getting ready to study it during a flyby. Its Metis coronagraph instrument, which blocks out the Sun so the spacecraft can study its outer atmosphere, recorded an image of something strange: a distorted, S-shaped “kink” in a small area of plasma flowing from the Sun. It was a magnetic solar switchback.
We’ve all seen the gorgeous images and videos of coronal loops. They’re curved magnetic forms that force brightly glowing plasma to travel along their path. They arch up above the Sun, sometimes for thousands of kilometres, before reconnecting with the Sun again.
But a new study says that some of what we’re seeing aren’t loops at all. Instead, they’re a type of optical illusion. Do we know the Sun as well as we think we do?
Earlier this week the Sun erupted with a huge explosion, blasting solar particles millions of kilometers into space. The team for the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter spacecraft says the blast is the largest solar prominence eruption ever observed in a single image together with the full solar disc.
Luckily for us here on Earth, the eruption on February 15, 2022 occurred on the farside of the Sun, the side facing away from our planet. But ESA and NASA predict geomagnetic storms are possible in the next few days as the active region on the Sun responsible for the blast turns toward us.
Solar flares are complex phenomena. They involve plasma, electromagnetic radiation across all wavelengths, activity in the Sun’s atmosphere layers, and particles travelling at near light speed. Spacecraft like NASA’s Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) and the Parker Solar Probe shed new light on the Sun’s solar flares.
But it was a Japanese-led mission called Yohkoh that spotted an unusual solar flare in 1999. This flare displayed a downward flowing motion toward the Sun along with the normal outward flow. What caused it?
A team of researchers think they’ve figured it out.
For the first time ever, a spacecraft has flown through the Sun’s outer atmosphere. The Parker Solar Probe passed through the out portion of the Sun’s corona in April of 2021, passing directly through streamers of solar plasma.
And by the way …. there’s video of what the spacecraft “saw.”
Last summer, the Parker Solar Probe flew past Venus on its way to fly closer to the Sun. In a bit of a surprise, one of the spacecraft’s cameras, the Wide-field Imager for Parker Solar Probe, or WISPR, captured a striking image of the planet’s nightside from 7,693 miles (12380 km) away.
The surprise of the image was that WISPR – a visible light camera – seemingly captured Venus’ surface in infrared light.