NASA Is Launching a Rocket into Space to Take 1,500 Images of the Sun in Five Minutes

NASA will launch a rocket 200 miles into space on Friday to take 1,500 images of the sun. This will allow scientists to observe the tiny changes that take place in active regions of the sun, giving a better understanding of the extreme conditions from which massive solar flares and coronal mass ejections—plasma and magnetic field lines that are ejected from the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere—can emerge.

At present, NASA has a number of missions that constantly monitor the sun. Its Solar Dynamics Observatory looks specifically at the causes of changes to the sun and how this affects Earth. This includes its magnetic field, the interior of the sun and its atmosphere. Yet despite decades of research, scientists do not fully understand the processes that take place on the sun.

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With its latest launch, NASA will zoom in on the areas of the sun where lots of activity takes place. The RAISE mission—Rapid Acquisition Imaging Spectrograph Experiment—will take images of these regions for just five minutes, taking a picture five times per second. This will allow scientists to track the changes taking place, helping them work out the mechanisms involved.

“Dynamic processes happen on all timescales,” Don Hassler, principal investigator for the RAISE mission, said in a statement. “With RAISE, we’ll read out an image every two-tenths of a second, so we can study very fast processes and changes on the sun. That’s around five to 10 times faster than comparable instruments on other sounding rocket or satellite missions.”

Sun A coronal mass ejection. Londoners compared the temperature to that in Mordor from "Lord of the Rings." NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDO

“RAISE is pushing the limits of high-cadence observations [short interval between images], and doing so is challenging. But that’s exactly what the NASA sounding rocket program is for. We expect this flight to provide some of the highest cadence spectral observations of the sun at these wavelengths ever taken.”

The RAISE rocket flight will last for just 15 to 20 minutes before the data is returned to Earth via parachutes. At present, the launch is scheduled to take place at 2:25 p.m. ET at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The images returned will create a spectrograph, an instrument that separates the Sun’s light into different wavelengths—meaning scientists can examine how solar material moves around and, potentially, how this movement gives rise to solar eruptions.

Understanding activity on the sun is of hugely important as it produces solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which can cause geomagnetic storms that damage communications satellites and cause power outages on Earth.

The largest solar storm ever recorded—dubbed the Carrington Event—took place in 1859. Auroras, which are associated with solar winds, could be seen across the globe, with the northern lights seen as far south as the Caribbean. The event also led to the failure of telegraph systems across Europe and North America, with pylons throwing sparks.

nasa rocket NASA's RAISE rocket before launch. Amir Caspi, Southwest Research Institute

Should a similar solar storm hit today, the impact would be devastating, leading to a technology melt-down that could take years to recover from.  A 2008 report by the National Research Council estimated the cost of a Carrington Event-sized storm today would top $2 trillion. And researchers say it is only a matter of time before this happens.

In an interview with Nature magazine earlier this year, Juha-Pekka Luntama, head of the ESA’s space-weather program, said: “We have been lucky that we have not been hit by a really big event. We will be hit eventually, the question is, ‘when?’”

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