NASA Selects Missions to Study Our Sun, Its Effects on Space Weather


June 20, 2019 RELEASE 19-047

A constant outflow of solar material streams out from the Sun, depicted here in an artist's rendering.
A constant outflow of solar material streams out from the Sun, depicted here in an artist’s rendering. On June 20, 2019, NASA selected two new missions – the Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH) mission and Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites (TRACERS) – to study the origins of this solar wind and how it affects Earth. Together, the missions support NASA’s mandate to protect astronauts and technology in space from such radiation. Credits: NASA

NASA has selected two new missions to advance our understanding of the Sun and its dynamic effects on space. One of the selected missions will study how the Sun drives particles and energy into the solar system and a second will study Earth’s response.

The Sun generates a vast outpouring of solar particles known as the solar wind, which can create a dynamic system of radiation in space called space weather. Near Earth, where such particles interact with our planet’s magnetic field, the space weather system can lead to profound impacts on human interests, such as astronauts’ safety, radio communications, GPS signals, and utility grids on the ground. The more we understand what drives space weather and its interaction with the Earth and lunar systems, the more we can mitigate its effects – including safeguarding astronauts and technology crucial to NASA’s Artemis program to the Moon.

“We carefully selected these two missions not only because of the high-class science they can do in their own right, but because they will work well together with the other heliophysics spacecraft advancing NASA’s mission to protect astronauts, space technology and life down here on Earth,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These missions will do big science, but they’re also special because they come in small packages, which means that we can launch them together and get more research for the price of a single launch.”


The Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere, or PUNCH, mission will focus directly on the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, and how it generates the solar wind. Composed of four suitcase-sized satellites, PUNCH will image and track the solar wind as it leaves the Sun. The spacecraft also will track coronal mass ejections – large eruptions of solar material that can drive large space weather events near Earth – to better understand their evolution and develop new techniques for predicting such eruptions.

These observations will enhance national and international research by other NASA missions such as Parker Solar Probe, and the upcoming ESA (European Space Agency)/NASA Solar Orbiter, due to launch in 2020.  PUNCH will be able to image, in real time, the structures in the solar atmosphere that these missions encounter by blocking out the bright light of the Sun and examining the much fainter atmosphere.

Together, these missions will investigate how the star we live with drives radiation in space. PUNCH is led by Craig DeForest at the Southwest Research institute in Boulder, Colorado. Including launch costs, PUNCH is being funded for no more than $165 million.


The second mission is Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites, or TRACERS. The TRACERS investigation was partially selected as a NASA-launched rideshare mission, meaning it will be launched as a secondary payload with PUNCH. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is emphasizing secondary payload missions as a way to obtain greater science return. TRACERS will observe particles and fields at the Earth’s northern magnetic cusp region – the region encircling Earth’s pole, where our planet’s magnetic field lines curve down toward Earth. Here, the field lines guide particles from the boundary between Earth’s magnetic field and interplanetary space down into the atmosphere.

In the cusp area, with its easy access to our boundary with interplanetary space, TRACERS will study how magnetic fields around Earth interact with those from the Sun. In a process known as magnetic reconnection, the field lines explosively reconfigure, sending particles out at speeds that can approach the speed of light. Some of these particles will be guided by the Earth’s field into the region where TRACERS can observe them.

Magnetic reconnection drives energetic events all over the universe, including coronal mass ejections and solar flares on the Sun. It also allows particles from the solar wind to push into near-Earth space, driving space weather there. TRACERS will be the first space mission to explore this process in the cusp with two spacecraft, providing observations of how processes change over both space and time. The cusp vantage point also permits simultaneous observations of reconnection throughout near-Earth space. Thus, it can provide important context for NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, which gathers detailed, high-speed observations as it flies through single reconnection events at a time.

TRACERS’ unique measurements will help with NASA’s mission to safeguard our technology and astronauts in space. The mission is led by Craig Kletzing at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Not including rideshare costs, TRACERS is funded for no more than $115 million.

Launch date for the two missions is no later than August 2022. Both programs will be managed by the Explorers Program Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The Explorers Program, the oldest continuous NASA program, is designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the work of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in astrophysics and heliophysics. The program is managed by Goddard for the Science Mission Directorate, which conducts a wide variety of research and scientific exploration programs for Earth studies, space weather, the solar system and universe.

For additional information, and the chance to ask more about the missions, please join us for a Reddit Ask Me Anything at 12:30 – 1:30 p.m. EDT June 21.

For more information about the Explorers Program, visit:


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June 22, 2019 3:18 am

“….. where our planet’s magnetic field lines curve down toward Earth.”
Magnetic field intensity is a continuous three dimensional entity, the imaginary ‘lines’ are used on maps and charts to represent points of the same intensity, in the manner the temperature, pressure or the altitude are shown on corresponding maps and charts.

Reply to  Vuk
June 22, 2019 7:55 am

“isotesla” lines?

Reply to  Rocketscientist
June 22, 2019 11:18 am

Good one (on many charts in microTesla) except in the Elon Musk’s car park as a line of ‘Teslas’ with dead batteries.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Vuk
June 22, 2019 11:42 am

temperature, pressure or the altitude are scalars. Magnetic field lines are vectors. As such, it makes a compass needle deflect downward (into the Earth) as it moves toward a pole.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
June 22, 2019 1:55 pm

to continue the nitpicking, I said intensity which is a scalar and is described by a single property i.e. a numerical value. Force acting on a compass needle is a vector described by a numerical magnitude with three dimensional (also stated in my comment) direction attributes. Since the MF iso-lines are different on the day side (compressed) from night side (elongated), taking into account the Earth’s rotation, in reality the MF it is a complex ‘i’ value phasor with the angular periodicity of 86400sec, rather than just a static plain vector.
Anyone else?

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Vuk
June 22, 2019 3:51 pm

A scalar field (such as a iso-contour map of temperatures or pressure altitudes) is a tensor field of order zero.

A magnetic field is a vector field.

So speaking of “MF iso-lines” makes no sense. It’s no wonder you have fundamental problems with intertwining solar physics and numerology. Sorry to be so blunt, but that’s the way is see it from your written words here.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
June 22, 2019 11:29 pm

Vector is static, Earth’s field intensity at altitude( as case is in this article) at any point is not static, it oscilates with periodicity of 24h (as mentioned above), hence it it is a three dimensional phasor, whereby three components contain complex numbers e^i(2pi)ft, or perhaps this is an argument about terminology employed in different educational systems.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
June 23, 2019 12:11 am

P.s. your Wikipedia article reference is to a bar magnet, the Earth’s field at altitude is something totally different, with its shape continuously reformed by direction of sun (oscillates with 24 hours periodicity), just look up any image of the magnetosphere .
Tensor is a tangent vector, phasor is oscillating vector.

June 22, 2019 3:21 am

We have come a long way since I was a kid. Back then size of our solar system was defined by physical bodies and their orbits. Now it is defined by the extent of the suns influence. Voyager 1 was not considered to have left the solar system and reached interstellar space until it left the heliosphere.

Joel O'Bryan
June 22, 2019 11:38 am

Meanwhile the “other” NASA Goddard is off adjusting 80-year old temperature records to keep the climate scam on track. The funds for that “other” Goddard need to be entirely shifted to the Goddard where actual science is being planned and executed.

June 22, 2019 3:08 pm

Supersonic plasma jets discovered
by European Space Agency

“Information from ESA’s magnetic field Swarm mission has led to the discovery of supersonic plasma jets high up in our atmosphere that can push temperatures up to almost 10 000°C

Presenting these findings at this week’s Swarm Science Meeting in Canada, scientists from the University of Calgary explained how they used measurements from the trio of Swarm satellites to build on what was known about vast sheets of electric current in the upper atmosphere.

The theory that there are huge electric currents, powered by solar wind and guided through the ionosphere by Earth’s magnetic field, was postulated more than a century ago by Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, after the advent of satellites, however, that these ‘Birkeland currents’ were confirmed by direct measurements in space.

These currents carry up to 1 TW of electric power to the upper atmosphere – about 30 times the energy consumed in New York during a heatwave.

They are also responsible for ‘aurora arcs’, the familiar, slow-moving green curtains of light that can extend from horizon to horizon.

While much is known about these current systems, recent observations by Swarm have revealed that they are associated with large electrical fields”

Arthur Yatsko
June 22, 2019 6:54 pm

These missions are going to the sun at night, right? 😎

Gerry, England
June 24, 2019 5:59 am

What happens if they find out that the sun controls our climate?

June 24, 2019 2:32 pm

Gerry England
The sun plays its part via inclination angle,
“This titled position of the earths axis is known as inclination of the earths axis. The earth’s rotation axis makes an angle of about 66.5 degrees with the plane of its orbit around the sun, or about 23.5 degrees from the perpendicular to the ecliptic plane. ”
Because of this process, Earth’s not like its 2 closest neighbours Venus and Mars. The process below protects us from the solar wind.
“About 50% of the heat given off by the Earth is generated by the radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium, and their decay products. That is the conclusion of an international team of physicists that has used the KamLAND detector in Japan to measure the flux of antineutrinos emanating from deep within the Earth. The result, which agrees with previous calculations of the radioactive heating, should help physicists to improve models of how heat is generated in the Earth. ”

Magnetic oceans and electric Earth.

3 October 2016
Oceans might not be thought of as magnetic, but they make a tiny contribution to our planet’s protective magnetic shield. Remarkably, ESA’s Swarm satellites have not only measured this extremely faint field, but have also led to new discoveries about the electrical nature of inner Earth.

The magnetic field shields us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth from the Sun. Without it, the atmosphere as we know it would not exist, rendering life virtually impossible.

Scientists need to learn more about our protective field to understand many natural processes, from those occurring deep inside the planet, to weather in space caused by solar activity. This information will then yield a better understanding of why Earth’s magnetic field is weakening.

Although we know that the magnetic field originates in different parts of Earth and that each source generates magnetism of different strengths, exactly how it is generated and why it changes is not fully understood.

June 24, 2019 2:52 pm

“Our planet’s atmosphere is home to extraordinary electrical activity. As we’ve noted, retired professor of electrical engineering Dr. Donald Scott developed a mathematical model of the structure of a Birkeland current, which can be identified visually as counterrotating cylinders. We have suggested that the counterrotation clearly seen at the poles of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and in the earthly aurorae are the consistent indicators of the Birkeland current’s influences. Today, Dr. Scott invites the electric universe community to explore the ways one might actually be able to track live the presence of Birkeland currents in Earth’s atmosphere.”

June 24, 2019 6:55 pm

What ?…. Study the Sun ? Does this mean cow farts and volvos are not going to cause the earth to end in less than 12 years ?
What happens when the Arctic loses the Sun in the winter ? Not pretty .

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