Satellite SMILE – space weather program
A satellite to study space weather, in particular the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth’s magnetosphere: this is SMILE, a joint scientific space mission between Europe and China to be launched in 2021, now in feasibility assessment.
If all goes well, Europe and China together will study solar storms. The selection process for a common space probe to be launched in 2021, carried out jointly by the ESA Science Programme and the China National Space Science Centre (NSSC) of the Academy of Sciences, has now a product candidate.
A scientific mission in the already optimistic name, SMILE (Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer), has received the go-ahead for the initial feasibility study, to be concluded by the end of the year. The goal of the mission SMILE is to understand how the Sun affects the changes in environmental conditions that occur in outer space, above the Earth’s atmosphere. A dynamic that is usually summarized under the name of space weather, in analogy with the meteorology Atmospheric, but which has little to do with the usual weather forecast, comprising physical phenomena that affect the plasma, magnetic fields, radiation, and etc.
The understanding of space weather has not only a speculative aspect. If launched, SMILE held for three years under continuous observation of the solar wind and its effects on Earth, helping scientists to understand the chain of events that can lead-damage satellites or interruption of power grids and radio communications. Hopefully, the information gathered by the mission will be used to predict future strong solar storms, in order to mitigate the impact.
“During the eleven-year cycle of the Sun, the frequency and strength of solar flares (flare) and coronal mass ejections vary a lot,” explains the scientific coordinator of the European project, Graziella Branduardi-Raymont’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory at the University College London (UCL). “This can cause side effects on Earth, mainly as a result of geomagnetic storms originated by strong disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by charged particles from the solar wind. Severe storms can disrupt technology infrastructures, such as GPS satellites in orbit or telecommunications, but also expose staff of scheduled flights and the astronauts themselves to high doses of radiation. ”
SMILE differs from previous missions similar in that intends to study what is happening globally in the Earth’s magnetosphere, both more localized in the ionosphere and polar auroras. To achieve this, SMILE will be placed in an elliptical orbit tilted strongly where the probe will be located in only a third of the Earth-Moon distance.
“SMILE will investigate the interaction of the Sun with the Earth’s magnetic environment in a unique way, never attempted before,” continues Branduardi-Raymont. “We will use a new approach using the X-ray imaging, measuring at the same time with other instruments of the Northern Lights and the properties of the solar wind. SMILE will give us the opportunity to understand the processes from start to finish, and then predict the effects of space weather events in a way hitherto unprecedented. ”
The mission is a joint effort of scientists and engineers from Europe and China but also Canadians (the University of Calgary will drive the development auroral imager), with an additional scientific support from the United States. Now we have to wait for the outcome of the feasibility study to find out whether the partners of the collaboration SMILE will really smile.