NASA has unveiled its plans for a new mission focused on the formation and evolution of solar winds emitted by the Sun. The upcoming mission also aims to understand the effect of the solar emissions on Earth.

For the project, NASA partnered with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas for the development of four small satellites that will study the Sun’s activity. These satellites, which will be about as big as suitcases, will be the main feature of the mission dubbed as Polarimeter to Unifry the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH).

After launching, these satellites will move to an orbital altitude of 350 miles from the Earth’s surface. From there, they will carry out 3D imaging observations of the outer solar corona. This region, which is also referred to as the Sun’s atmosphere, is where solar winds emerge before travelling across space.

“The vacuum of space between the planets is not completely empty – it is actually filled with a tenuous, hypersonic ‘solar wind’ that streams out from the corona and affects spacecraft and planets – including our own,” PUNCH’s principal investigator Craig DeForest said in a statement.

“PUNCH will observe the ‘no-man’s land’ between the outer solar corona and the solar wind, giving us our first clear images of the entire system connecting the Sun and Earth,” he added.

Currently, Earth’s space agencies study solar winds through the data collected by spacecraft that are directly embedded in them. Although this method can still provide helpful information, it cannot follow the solar winds as they evolve.

“This is like understanding global weather patterns based on detailed measurements from a few individual weather stations on the ground,” Sara Gibson, a project scientist for the mission said. “PUNCH is more like a weather satellite that can image and track a complete storm system as it evolves across an entire region.”

Through data gathered by the PUNCH satellites, NASA hopes to get a better understanding of how solar emissions change as they travel from the Sun across the solar system. NASA has not yet announced an exact date for the launch but it is expected to take place sometime in August 2022.

Solar flare
Study suggests sun's activity was far more intense before planets formed. Pictured, an image showing the bright light of a solar flare on the left side of the sun and an eruption of solar material shooting through the its atmosphere, called a prominence eruption. NASA/SDO