NASA’s SunRISE Mission to Feature Six Smallsats

NASA’s Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment (SunRISE) marks a departure from conventional spacecraft missions by utilizing not one or two but a cluster of six identical SmallSats. Recently, construction of these cereal box-sized satellites was completed, heralding a significant milestone for the SunRISE project managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. The culmination of this phase means the satellites will undergo final testing before embarking on their space journey, set to be a rideshare aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket sponsored by the United States Space Force’s Space Systems Command.

The unique objective of SunRISE is to transform this fleet of SmallSats into a collaborative radio antenna, collectively studying solar radio bursts. These bursts, generated in the outer atmosphere of the Sun, stem from the acceleration of electrons during energetic solar events like coronal mass ejections and solar flares. The insights derived from SunRISE aim to enhance our understanding of these phenomena, eventually contributing to the protection of astronauts and space infrastructure from the potentially harmful effects of accelerated particles.

While individually diminutive, the combined efforts of the six SmallSats will enable them to mimic a sizable radio telescope in space. The primary focus is to monitor solar radio bursts that could pose threats to spacecraft electronics, particularly those aboard communication satellites in Earth’s orbit. Moreover, these bursts are associated with health risks for astronauts, prompting the need for a comprehensive study of their origins and interconnections with other solar events.

SunRISE’s methodology involves deploying the SmallSats about 6 miles apart, each equipped with four radio antennas extending 10 feet. This strategic configuration allows scientists and engineers to precisely track the relative positions of the satellites and record the timing of observed solar events. The subsequent amalgamation of this data into a unified stream facilitates the creation of images of the Sun using interferometry, a technique that merges the observational capabilities of multiple satellites into a singular instrument.

Interferometry offers a unique advantage in contrast to traditional missions that incorporate multiple scientific instruments on a single spacecraft. SunRISE utilizes its fleet of SmallSats not just as standalone entities but as interconnected components operating collectively as a single instrument. This pioneering approach holds the promise of delivering unprecedented insights into the mysteries of solar radio bursts and their correlation with coronal mass ejections and solar flares.

One distinctive aspect of SunRISE is its classification as a Mission of Opportunity under NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD). Falling within the Explorers Program, managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, SunRISE is spearheaded by Justin Kasper at the University of Michigan, with the project management handled by JPL. The spacecraft construction was undertaken by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory.

As the completion of SmallSat construction marks a pivotal moment, the subsequent stages involve rigorous testing and integration efforts. Once validated, these innovative satellites will join the roster of missions aiming to unravel the intricacies of our solar system. SunRISE represents not only a technological milestone but a testament to collaborative scientific endeavors in advancing our comprehension of the Sun and its impact on the space environment.

This collaborative venture highlights NASA’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of space exploration by embracing unconventional approaches. The success of SunRISE could pave the way for future missions that harness the power of miniaturized spacecraft to unravel the secrets of the cosmos. As these small wonders prepare for their cosmic voyage, the anticipation builds for the day when they unveil the first images of the Sun in radio wavelengths, opening new frontiers in solar physics and space exploration.