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Xplore wins award for solar observatory concept

Xcraft observing sun
Artwork shows Xplore’s Xcraft probe observing the sun in different spectral bands. (Xplore Illustration)

Seattle-based Xplore has won a $670,111 award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to look into the feasibility of sending a solar observatory to a gravitational balance point that’s a million miles from Earth.

From that spot, known as the Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange Point, Xplore’s multi-mission Xcraft probe would monitor the sun and provide early detection of solar storms that could disrupt power grids and telecommunications on Earth.

Based on the outcome of Xplore’s study, which is due for completion in December, NOAA would decide whether or not to provide further support for the concept that the company comes up with.

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Tethers Unlimited to support sun-watching mission

PUNCH mission
Four microsatellites will study how the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, imparts energy and mass to the solar wind during NASA’s PUNCH mission. (SwRI Illustration)

Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited says it will provide key communications and propulsion capabilities to Southwest Research Institute in support of a NASA mission to study how the sun’s corona whips up the solar wind.

Tethers Unlimited’s SWIFT-XTS software-defined radio will be used for telemetry and control of the four suitcase-sized microsatellites that will conduct a mission known as PUNCH (Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere). And the company’s HYDROS-C water-electrolysis thruster will serve as the satellites’ propulsion system.

Last year NASA selected Southwest Research Institute, which has centers in Colorado and Texas, to lead the mission.

“Procuring these complete spacecraft subsystems ‘off-the-rack’ is critical to the PUNCH science,” Craig DeForest, a solar scientist at SwRI who serves as the mission’s principal investigator, said today in a news release. “The growing commercial ecosystem for space enables a constellation of four separate high-capability spacecraft, within the cost of a single traditionally-built satellite.”

The satellites will orbit Earth in formation to study how the corona, which serves as the sun’s outer atmosphere, infuses the solar wind with mass and energy. PUNCH’s satellites are due for launch as early as 2022.

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Solar Orbiter blasts off to study the sun, pole to pole

The Solar Orbiter spacecraft was launched tonight to begin a seven-year, $1.5 billion mission aimed at studying the sun and its mysterious magnetic field from an unprecedented vantage point.

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AI helps NASA get ahead of solar superstorms

Solar flare
An extreme ultraviolet image of the sun, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows an X9.3 flare erupting at lower right during a solar storm in 2017. (NASA / Goddard / SDO Photo)

If the sun throws out a radiation blast of satellite-killing proportions someday, Amazon Web Services may well play a role in heading off a technological doomsday.

That’s the upshot of a project that has NASA working with AWS Professional Services and the Amazon Machine Learning Solutions Lab to learn more about the early warning signs of a solar superstorm, with the aid of artificial intelligence.

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Why was solar observatory closed? (It wasn’t aliens)

Sunspot Solar Observatory
The Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope is the centerpiece of the Sunspot Solar Observatory on Sacramento Peak in New Mexico. (National Science Foundation Photo)

After days of fighting rumors about alien visitations, the managers of the Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico say they’re reopening the facility — and have shed more light on the reason for its 10-day security-related closure.

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Parker Solar Probe blasts off to ‘touch the sun’

Parker Solar Probe launch
A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket sends NASA’s Parker Solar Probe spaceward from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (NASA via YouTube)

NASA today sent a super-shielded spacecraft known as the Parker Solar Probe on a mission that will take it closer to the sun than any other spacecraft has flown, with the probe’s namesake, a 91-year-old physicist, watching the launch.

A blazing United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket rose into the night sky from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 3:31 a.m. ET (12:31 a.m. PT), one day after concerns over a data glitch forced a postponement.

Three rocket stages powered the probe on the first leg of its sunward journey.

“All I can say is, wow, here we go, we’re in for some learning over the next several years,” University of Chicago solar physicist Eugene Parker said just after liftoff.

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How staring at the eclipse led to a world of hurt

Retina burn
An optical coherence tomography image of a woman’s left-eye retina shows a crescent-shaped scar. (Wu et al.. / JAMA Ophthalmology)

A medical case reported today in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology proved the wisdom of all those warnings not to stare at the partly covered sun during August’s solar eclipse.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for the woman at the center of the case: Now she has a permanent scar in her left eye’s retina, and a permanent black spot in her field of vision.

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Solar storms could light up smoky skies

Solar flare
An extreme ultraviolet image of the sun, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows an X9.3 flare erupting at lower right. (NASA / Goddard / SDO Photo)

The sun has been acting up this week, and normally that would produce auroral displays bright enough to see in Washington state.

But this isn’t a normal week: Western skies have been obscured by wildfire smoke, and although westerly winds are expected to push out a lot of that smoke overnight in the Seattle area, it’s debatable whether northern lights will be visible.

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Here’s how the eclipsed sun’s corona will look

Solar corona
This image shows field lines of a solar coronal magnetic model based on measurements from the National Solar Observatory Integrated Synoptic Program, one solar rotation before the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse. (NSO / NSF Graphic)

Skywatchers will see a rare celestial sight during the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse: the sun’s shimmering outer atmosphere, known as the corona. What will it look like? Astronomers worked their magic to give us a glimpse.

The corona is more than just a fuzzy halo: The superheated gas that makes up the sun’s outermost layer tends to follow the patterns of magnetic force that arc around the sun.

To come up with their preview of the corona, researchers at the National Solar Observatory in Arizona modeled the sun’s magnetic field as of July 25, which was 27 days in advance of the solar eclipse. That’s important, because it takes the sun 27.2753 days to make a complete rotation.

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How to watch the transit of Mercury

Image: Transit of Mercury
A multiple-exposure photo shows Mercury as a speck making its way across the sun. (Credit: NASA)

For the first time in a decade, we Earthlings can watch the planet Mercury’s black speck pass across the sun on Monday – even in Seattle, where seeing the sun can be an iffy proposition. Just make sure you see it safely.

“This is one of the very rare opportunities to see the parts of the solar system in motion,” said Stephanie Anderson, president of the Seattle Astronomical Society. “It doesn’t happen very often, so when you get an opportunity, take it.”

The event begins at 4:12 a.m. PT, when the edge of our solar system’s closest-in planet appears to touch the sun’s disk. That’s before dawn for West Coasters, so Seattleites will have to wait until sunrise at 5:40 a.m., when the transit is in progress.

Anderson and other skywatchers plan to be ready at Snoqualmie Point Park, just off Interstate 90 at Exit 27, for a viewing party sponsored by the astronomical society. Members will set up telescopes with solar-safe filter for a look-see. Some of the telescopes will be equipped with hydrogen-alpha filters that highlight solar prominences.

The forecast for Monday morning calls for partly cloudy skies over Seattle, but if the weather is favorable, the party could go on until Mercury completes its transit at 11:42 a.m. PT. Keep an eye on the Seattle Astronomical Society’s website for updates.

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