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NASA's New Explorer Missions Shine a Light on Sun-Earth Connection

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) aims to demystify the Sun's intricate relationship with Earth.
NASA has selected four small explorer missions, currently in the concept study phase, which will help to understand the Sun-Earth relationship.
The Quest for Cosmic Insight

The Sun is not just a celestial body that illuminates our days; it's a dynamic entity that shapes the very fabric of space. Understanding its mysteries is crucial, not just for scientific discovery but also for safeguarding our astronauts, satellites, and communication systems while enabling the advancement of space exploration.

"These four mission concept studies were selected because they address compelling science questions and could greatly impact the field of heliophysics," said Nicky Fox, the associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "These missions have the potential for broad impact, and could provide new and deeper insight into the solar atmosphere and space weather," Fox added.

The missions:

1. CINEMA - Understanding Earth's Magnetotail and Aurora

The Cross-scale Investigation of Earth's Magnetotail and Aurora (CINEMA) mission is poised to unravel the mysteries of Earth's plasma sheet—a dense region of space plasma nestled in the magnetic fields trailing behind our planet, known as the magnetotail. Led by principal investigator Robyn Millan from Dartmouth College, CINEMA deploys a constellation of nine CubeSats in sun-synchronous, low Earth orbit. Its mission is to dissect the structure and evolution of Earth's plasma sheet and decode how Earth's magnetic fields transfer heat and evolve at various scales. CINEMA promises to complement existing heliophysics missions and enhance our understanding of the cosmos.

2. CMEx - Peering into the Solar Chromosphere

The Chromospheric Magnetism Explorer (CMEx) mission, helmed by principal investigator Holly Gilbert from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, ventures into the Sun's chromosphere—a layer of solar atmosphere just above the visible surface. CMEx seeks to unravel the magnetic nature of solar eruptions and uncover the sources of the solar wind. With its continuous observations of the solar magnetic field, CMEx aims to bridge the gap between the Sun's surface and the interplanetary magnetic field.

3. ECCCO - Probing Solar Coronal Mass Ejections

The Extreme Ultraviolet Coronal Mass Ejection and Coronal Connectivity Observatory (ECCCO) mission, led by principal investigator Katharine Reeves from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sets its sights on the Sun's middle corona. Equipped with a single spacecraft housing two advanced instruments—an ultraviolet imager and an imaging EUV spectrograph—ECCCO aims to decode the dynamics of eruptive solar events, understand the origin of the outward streaming solar wind, and trace the flow of mass and energy connecting the Sun to the outer corona and heliosphere.

4. MAAX - Illuminating Earth's Auroras

The Magnetospheric Auroral Asymmetry Explorer (MAAX) mission, led by principal investigator Michael Liemohn from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, seeks to deepen our understanding of the electrodynamic coupling between Earth's magnetosphere and ionosphere—a critical regulator of auroral energy flow. MAAX employs two identical spacecraft, each equipped with dual-wavelength ultraviolet imagers, to provide global imaging of auroras in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

As these pioneering missions take shape, they hold the potential to reshape our understanding of the Sun, space weather, and their profound influence on Earth. With funding and management oversight provided by the Heliophysics Explorers Program, these studies promise to deliver groundbreaking insights, answer longstanding questions, and build upon the research and technology of NASA's current and legacy missions.


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