NASA Investigates Mysterious Radio Signals From the Sun

“This is a very ambitious and very exciting mission.”

To coordinate

The sun’s surface semi-regularly erupts in spectacular events like coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares that astound us with their powerful displays. But these forms of solar activity also produce something more subtle that has intrigued astronomers: mysterious radio signals that have proven elusive in the decades since they were first detected.

Scientists know the source of these radio bursts is somewhere in CMEs, but these solar flares are enormousThey spew billions of tons of material into space and can easily dwarf a planet, sometimes stretching so far that they take up a quarter of the space between the sun and Earth.

To solve the mystery, NASA has launched a new mission called the CubeSat Radio Interferometry Experiment (CURIE). With this, NASA wants to study these radio bursts. To do this, two small satellites will be placed in orbit around the Earth that will measure the signals separately.

“This is a very ambitious and very exciting mission,” said David Sundkvist, CURIE’s principal investigator and a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, in a press release. “This is the first time anyone has flown a radio interferometer through space in a controlled way, and so it’s a pathfinder for radio astronomy in general.”

Tag team

The CURIE mission consists of two cubesats – very small satellites, about the size of a shoebox – that will be launched into orbit aboard the European Space Agency’s Ariane 6 rocket, which launched on Tuesday.

The plan is to place them 580 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. There, using two 2.4-meter antennas, the satellites can scan radio waves between 0.1 and 19 megahertz that would otherwise be absorbed by the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Crucially, the satellites will also be placed about two miles apart. By measuring the extremely small differences in the time it takes for radio signals to reach each satellite, scientists will attempt to calculate precisely where they came from.

Signal amplification

There’s a good reason to invest in the details of solar events like CMEs. In addition to their massive bombardment of solar material, they also emit powerful magnetic fields that can affect the planets of the solar system in ways we may not yet understand.

On Earth, magnetic fields wreak havoc on our atmosphere — sometimes with dramatic results — and can seriously disrupt electronic infrastructure and communications. CMEs are difficult to predict, and their relationship to solar flares — explosions that send powerful bursts of radiation into space — is unclear.

CURIE is a bold experiment and will hopefully mark a step forward in space observations of our Sun, paving the way for a better understanding of the role the Sun’s eruptions have on the solar system.

More about the sun: Solar storm so powerful it shuts down farm machinery in US, Canada

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