NASA heliophysics fleet plans first ever mission to study space weather

The mission will be launched in August 2022 from Earth-orbiting space station

NASA has selected a USD 42 million mission that will help scientists understand and, ultimately, forecast the vast space weather system around our planet.

Space weather is important because it can have profound impacts—affecting technology and astronauts in space, disrupting radio communications and, at its most severe, overwhelming power grids.

The new experiment will, for the first time, obtain global observations of an important driver of space weather in a dynamic region of Earth’s upper atmosphere that can cause interference with radio and GPS communications, NASA said in a statement.

The Atmospheric Waves Experiment (AWE) mission will cost USD 42 million and is planned to launch in August 2022, attached to the exterior of the Earth-orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

From its space station perch, AWE will focus on colourful bands of light in Earth’s atmosphere, called airglow, to determine what combination of forces drive space weather in the upper atmosphere.

Researchers once thought that only the Sun’s constant outflow of ultraviolet light and particles, the solar wind, could affect the region.

However, recently they have learned that solar variability is not enough to drive the changes observed, and Earth’s weather also must be having an effect.

To help unravel that connection, AWE will investigate how waves in the lower atmosphere, caused by variations in the densities of different packets of air, impact the upper atmosphere.

AWE is a Mission of Opportunity under NASA’s Heliophysics Explorers Program, which conducts focused scientific research and develops instrumentation to fill the scientific gaps between the agency’s larger missions.

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