NASA has announced that the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will formulate, implement and operate multiple spacecraft for the agency's Geospace missions, which will study the sun's effects on Earth's magnetic field and upper atmosphere. The missions are part of NASA's Living With a Star program and the first to be assigned to APL under a 12-year contract awarded to it in July 2001.
"The Geospace missions represent a major element of our continuing Living With a Star partnership with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center," said Stamatios Krimigis, head of APL's Space Department. "APL's end-to-end science and engineering capabilities play a key role in helping us better understand the connection between the sun and Earth."
The Geospace missions focus on Earth's magnetic field and upper atmosphere, two areas protecting us from intense and damaging solar particles that constantly bombard our planet, and will help scientists better understand and predict space weather. Just as thunderstorms on Earth can affect power systems, solar storms can interfere with the operation of important commercial and military communications and navigation technologies, such as the Global Positioning System, and pose hazards to astronauts on the International Space Station.
The Ionospheric/Thermospheric Mapper is a three-year mission comprising two identically instrumented spacecraft, or "storm probes," that will measure the effects of geomagnetic storms on the ionosphere/thermosphere, a region in the atmosphere located approximately 53 to 620 miles above the surface. The spacecraft are expected to launch in 2008 and will operate in a low-altitude, high-inclination orbit around Earth.
The Radiation Belt Mapper is a two-year mission slated to study the effect of solar activity on radiation belts, which are doughnut-shaped belts of particles trapped by Earth's magnetic field that extend more than 20,000 miles around the planet. Two spacecraft, in nearly identical, low-inclination, highly elliptical orbits, will make simultaneous multipoint measurements of particle distributions and of electric and magnetic fields within these belts. The spacecraft are expected to launch in 2010.
The total costs for the two missions combined are estimated at $400 million, which includes launch vehicles, data analysis and project operations.
The Geospace investigations are the second in a series of missions within NASA's Living With a Star program, which focuses on better understanding the sun's effects on life and society. The Living With a Star Program Office at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md., has overall program responsibility for both Geospace missions, as well as the first LWS mission--the Solar Dynamics Observatory--slated for launch in 2007.