SMILE space mission passes first hurdle
A space mission called SMILE (Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer) which is jointly led by UCL and the Chinese National Space Science Center has received the go-ahead for an initial study phase this summer by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
SMILE aims to understand how the Sun controls the Earth's magnetic environment and space weather. If the initial studies are successful, the mission could be given a final decision of implementation in November 2015, with the launch expected at the end of 2021.
If launched, SMILE will monitor the solar wind and its effects on Earth for three years and will help scientists understand the chain of events leading to the disruption of satellites, power grids and radio communications. The information collected on the mission could be used to predict and mitigate the impact of future solar storms.
SMILE differs from previous missions looking at space weather as it will study what happens globally in the Earth's magnetosphere, as well as the ionosphere and aurora which are closer to Earth. This will provide more detailed information which will hopefully enable scientists to reach a complete understanding of how the Sun influences events on Earth by interacting with its magnetic environment.
Project co-lead, Professor Graziella Branduardi-Raymont (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory), said: "During the Sun's 11 year cycle, the frequency and strength of solar flares and coronal mass ejections varies a great deal. These cause damage on Earth - most notably are geomagnetic storms resulting from strong disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field caused by the charged particles coming from the solar wind. They can disrupt technological infrastructures including orbiting GPS satellites used for communications and expose air crew and astronauts to high doses of radiation."
The team will study how the charged particles in the solar wind interact with Earth's neutral atoms and molecules using a soft X-ray imager. Simultaneously, a UV imager will observe and measure the properties of the Northern aurora, while a light ion analyser and a magnetometer will monitor the solar wind conditions.
Professor Branduardi-Raymont, added: "SMILE will investigate the Sun's interaction with the Earth's magnetic environment in a unique manner, never attempted before: using the novel approach of imaging in X-ray, whilst measuring the UV aurora and the properties of the solar wind at the same time. SMILE will give us the opportunity to understand the processes from beginning to end and predict the effects of space weather events in a way unmatched so far."
The mission is a joint endeavour of European, Chinese and Canadian scientists and engineers, with science support from the USA. The University of Leicester lead the development of the soft X-ray imager and UCL MSSL that of the light ion-analyser, which measures the properties of the solar wind. Imperial College London collaborate with Chinese colleagues to implement the magnetometer, whereas the auroral UV Imager will be led by the University of Calgary, Canada.