UCLan helps NASA to probe mysteries of the sun

12 August 2021

Physicists and engineers from UCLan team up with NASA to gather new insight into outermost part of the Sun’s atmosphere

Physicists and engineers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) have teamed up with NASA on a suborbital flight to gather new information on the workings of the Sun.

The project saw researchers successfully launch a sophisticated X-ray solar imager on a brief but potentially illuminating suborbital flight via sounding rocket to gather new insight regarding how and why the Sun’s corona grows so much hotter than the actual surface of Earth’s parent star. It launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 2:20 pm (EDT) on 30 July.

Developers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, call the mission “MaGIXS” – short for Marshall Grazing Incidence X-ray Spectrometer.

Professor Robert Walsh, Professor Darren Ansell and research associate Ben Watkinson from UCLan provided software to analyse the slitjaw images, which enable the science team to determine where the payload is pointing in real time during flight.

The MaGIXS mission dispatched its payload – which included a high-powered camera, telescope, and X-ray spectrometer containing a matched pair of grazing incidence parabolic mirrors – to study so-called “soft” X-rays at a wavelength that hasn’t been previously observed in such detail.

Professor Walsh, institutional project lead, said: “The relationship we have formed with NASA Marshall and partners over the last decade demonstrates UCLan’s research capabilities in this arena.

“Our physicists and engineers played an integral part in developing the MaGIXS instrument. The opportunity this gives to look at the Sun and understand its activity is astounding. The findings from the MaGIXS mission will help us to understand the outer atmosphere of the Sun, learn more about the gases that erupt from it and what mechanisms generate the energy it releases; all of which have knock on effects on Earth.”

Marshall heliophysicist Amy Winebarger, principal investigator for the MaGIXS mission, said: “Our knowledge of the corona’s heating mechanisms is limited, partly because we’ve not yet been able to make detailed observations and measurements of the temperature distribution of the solar plasma in the region.”

The Sun’s surface temperature is more than 10,000 degrees Celsius – but the corona routinely measures more than 1.8 million degrees Celsius.

One of the biggest questions in astrophysics, Winebarger said, is how this process occurs. Is it a series of constant internal solar explosions, or is there a periodic rise and fall in the heating process? Scientists are considering two possible answers.

The first is tied to nanoflares, relatively small coronal heating events which may cause the magnetic lines of energy on the Sun’s surface to tangle and coil up like spaghetti in a boiling pot of water, sporadically superheating regions of the corona. The second possibility is wave heating, a near-constant internal solar agitation similar to that of a washing machine, which sends waves of energy up to the surface, where they’re expelled to heat the corona.

Effectively plumbing this turbulent solar region doesn’t require observations in high-energy X-rays. In fact, Winebarger said, MaGIXS will work in the same soft X-ray wavelength typically employed by doctors during routine X-ray examination of patients.

Past soft X-ray spectrometer missions have only observed the Sun’s corona over a fairly large field of view, or with limited energy diagnostic capabilities. MaGIXS, by comparison, will be the first imager to measure specific temperature distributions at different parts of an active solar region. That precision data will help scientists resolve the debate concerning how – and how often – the corona is superheated.

Shedding new light on coronal heating mechanisms could help researchers better understand and even predict potential solar flares and coronal mass ejections, both of which occur most often in connection with regional spikes in coronal heating. These violent outbursts can interfere with communications satellites and electronic systems, even causing physical drag on satellites as Earth’s atmosphere expands to absorb the added solar energy.

Indeed, the MaGIXS sounding rocket mission also serves as a testbed for instrumentation for future NASA missions to study solar flares in greater detail, possibly tying their origins to measurable coronal activity and helping demonstrate how advanced flight hardware and space systems can be hardened to weather high-energy tantrums from Earth’s star.

NASA routinely uses sounding rockets for such brief, focused science missions. They’re often smaller, more affordable, and faster to design and build than large-scale satellite missions, Winebarger said.

“They offer unique, suborbital science opportunities, a chance to develop innovative new instrumentation, and rapid return on investment,” she added.

The NASA team retrieved the flight payload immediately after the flight and has begun with UCLan processing datasets. They hope to issue their findings in coming months.

The MaGIXS mission was developed at Marshall in partnership with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Marshall engineers developed and fabricated the telescope and spectrometer mirrors, and the camera. The integrated instrument was exhaustively tested in Marshall’s state-of-the-art X-ray & Cryogenic Facility. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge provided the spectrometer’s integrated diffraction grating.

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