Friday, August 28, 2015

NASA Launches MOSES-2 Sounding Rocket to Investigate Coronal Heating

Engineers work on the final steps of integrating the MOSES-2 sounding rocket payload. The rocket, which will launch from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico August 25, is carrying an instrument called the Multi-Order Solar EUV Spectrograph, or MOSES-2. This instrument will be used to take images of the sun in extreme ultraviolet light on its 15-minute flight into space. Taking these kinds of images is impossible from the ground, since Earth’s atmosphere blocks all extreme ultraviolet light. Credits: NASA

The Multi-Order Solar EUV Spectrograph, or MOSES-2, payload developed by Montana State University was successfully flown on a NASA Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket at 1:45 p.m. EDT (11:45 a.m. MDT), August 27, 2015, from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The 1,146 pound payload flew to an estimated altitude of 185 miles. Preliminary analysis shows that data was collected by the payload, designed to examine coronal heating of the sun. Payload recovery is in progress.

During its trip, it took images of the sun in the extreme ultraviolet, or EUV, which can't be seen from the ground due to Earth’s EUV-blocking atmosphere.

MOSES-2 investigates the transition region of the sun, the layer of material where the photosphere—the layer of the sun we see—becomes the corona.

“The transition region is a pretty interesting place,” said Charles Kankelborg, principal investigator for MOSES-2 at Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana.

The so-called coronal heating problem is based in the fact that the sun produces energy by fusing hydrogen at its center -- so material generally gets cooler as you move outward from that incredibly hot core. The one exception is the sun’s atmosphere, the corona. Though the corona is farther from the core than any other part of the sun, it is unexpectedly hotter than many of the layers below. Scientists have proposed several theories to explain this mystery heating, ranging from the possibility of thousands of mini solar flares to complicated magnetic wave processes.

Kankelborg and his team are hoping to catch images of an explosive event in the transition region, one possible cause of coronal heating. Similar to a solar flare, such explosive events are thought to be caused by magnetic reconnection, a sometimes violent process in which magnetic field lines disconnect and reconfigure, releasing energy and heat. The MOSES team says that watching magnetic reconnection may well be easier in the transition region that it is in the larger solar flares.

“It’s very difficult to see the actual magnetic reconnection in a solar flare,” said Kankelborg. “Solar flares happen in the sun's upper atmosphere, the corona, where material is relatively sparse, so there’s not much stuff there to let off light and show us what’s happening.”

On the other hand, the transition region is relatively dense, meaning that researchers have a chance to observe magnetic reconnection more directly if they catch an explosive event.

This is the second flight for the MOSES instrument. In 2006, MOSES flew on a sounding rocket to make similar observations of the sun, but in a different wavelength. The team plans to fly MOSES a third time in 2018 along with a new spectrograph to make more observations of the transition region.

The MOSES-2 launch is supported through NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program at the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the sounding rocket program.

Credit: NASA

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