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UPDATE: Montana State University instrument to study sun takes spaceflight

August 24, 2015 -- MSU News Service

Engineers work on the final steps of integrating the MOSES-2 sounding rocket payload. The rocket, which will launch from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico August 25, is carrying an instrument called the Multi-Order Solar EUV Spectrograph, or MOSES-2. This instrument will be used to take images of the sun in extreme ultraviolet light on its 15-minute flight into space. Taking these kinds of images is impossible from the ground, since Earth's atmosphere blocks all extreme ultraviolet light. Credits: NASAThe sounding rocket is bolted down for a vibration test, in which the rocket is shaken violently to simulate the normal chaotic vibrations of a launch into space. The rocket and onboard MOSES-2 instrument passed with flying colors, clearing them for launch. Photo courtesy NASA.This graphic shows a model of the layers of the sun, with approximate mileage ranges for each layer: for the inner layers, the mileage is from the sun's core; for the outer layers, the mileage is from the sun's surface. Credits: National Solar Observatory.

Engineers work on the final steps of integrating the MOSES-2 sounding rocket payload. The rocket, which will launch from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico August 25, is carrying an instrument called the Multi-Order Solar EUV Spectrograph, or MOSES-2. This instrument will be used to take images of the sun in extreme ultraviolet light on its 15-minute flight into space. Taking these kinds of images is impossible from the ground, since Earth's atmosphere blocks all extreme ultraviolet light. Credits: NASA

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Aug. 27 update: Montana State University's MOSES-2 experiment successfully took flight Thursday, Aug. 27.

Aug. 24 update: The Tuesday, Aug. 25, launch of the rocket carrying MSU’s MOSES-2 experiment has been postponed due to a technical issue with the rocket. Tentative plans call for moving the launch to Thursday, Aug. 27, at 11:25 a.m. MDT. This is a one-hour launch window, ending at 12:25 p.m. MDT. An updated version of the story follows.

BOZEMAN - A Montana State University-built experiment to study the sun is planned for launch aboard a NASA-funded mission on Thursday, Aug. 27, from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

MSU’s experiment, the Multi-Order Solar EUV Spectrograph, or MOSES-2, will give researchers insight into one of the biggest mysteries in solar physics—the fact the sun's atmosphere is some 1,000 times hotter than its surface.

Developed by faculty and students in MSU’s Department of Physics within the College of Letters and Science, MOSES-2 will make a 15-minute journey into space on a Terrier-Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket. During its trip, it will soar to 187 miles high and take images of the sun. It will then parachute back to earth and be retrieved. The experiment is roughly 10 feet long, 22 inches in diameter, and weighs 500 pounds. The experiment has been in in the works for more than nine years.

For the past month, MSU physics professor Charles Kankelborg and two recent MSU physics graduates -- Jordan Maxwell and Roy Smart -- and doctoral student Tom Rust, have been testing the experiment at White Sands to ready it for flight. Also working with the team have been Keith Mashburn and Larry Springer, engineers with MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory. Smart, Maxwell and Kankelborg will be present for the launch along with recent physics graduate Jackson Remington and physics doctoral student Shane Atwood.

MOSES-2 will be investigating the transition region of the sun, the layer of material where the photosphere—the layer of the sun we see and which is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit—becomes the corona, which can reach millions of degrees.

“The transition region between photosphere and corona is a pretty interesting place,” said Kankelborg, the principal investigator for MOSES-2 at MSU.

Within the transition region, many small explosive events occur at any one moment. While Kankelborg doubts those explosions account for the extraordinary temperature of the corona, the underlying mechanism that drives the explosions may hold some answers.

“The explosions are powered by magnetic reconnection, the same mechanism responsible for releasing the energy in solar flares,” Kankelborg said.

Magnetic reconnection is a sometimes violent process in which the sun’s magnetic field lines disconnect and reconfigure, releasing enormous amounts of energy and heat.

A better understanding of how reconnection works may help in the understanding of solar events that can cause storms of charged particles that can interfere with satellites, airline navigation and global power grids.

“Reconnection is a primary mechanism for releasing the magnetic energy built up by the sun. If we can arrive at a fundamental understanding of reconnection in a solar context, it could lead to greatly improved predictive capabilities for space weather,” Kankelborg said.  

But reconnection is a difficult phenomenon to observe and can’t be seen from the surface of the Earth because the extreme ultraviolet light emitted by it is blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere.

But the MOSES-2 experiment is finely tuned to see this sort of light.  MOSES-2 will begin taking data when the rocket reaches a height of around 100 miles, 107 seconds after launch. Even 100 miles above the surface, there is still enough atmosphere that only about half of the sun’s extreme ultraviolet light is visible.

At the peak of the rocket’s flight, nearly 187 miles in altitude, the Earth’s atmosphere is so thin that 100 percent of the extreme ultraviolet light shines through it. The total flight time for experiment time is around 15 minutes, with about five minutes of data collection.

Though the period of data collection is short, sounding rockets are a valuable way to access space for a low cost.

“For about one percent of the cost of a satellite mission, you can spend five minutes taking data in space,” said Kankelborg. “It’s a great way to demonstrate cutting-edge instruments and new ways of doing science.”

The lower budget and shorter timeline of sounding rocket missions also make them ideal for university and student involvement.

“In a university setting, it’s easier to run a research program based on sounding rocket missions than satellite missions,” said Kankelborg. “You can get students involved in building instruments hands-on.”

The launch window for MOSES-2 opens at 11:25 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 27, and the team will wait for favorable weather conditions before launching.

This is the second flight for a MOSES instrument. In 2006, MOSES flew on a sounding rocket to make similar observations of the sun, but in a different wavelength. Students and faculty have been working on MOSES-2 since 2006.  

The team plans to fly a third MOSES mission in 2018 along with a new spectrograph to make more observations of the transition region.

The MOSES-2 launch is supported through NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program at the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the sounding rocket program.

Kankelborg is part of MSU’s Solar Physics Group within the MSU Department of Physics and the College of Letters and Science. The Solar Physics Group is recognized internationally for its research. Many of its graduates have gone on to work for NASA and other notable institutions around the world.

For more information about NASA's Sounding Rocket Program, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/soundingrockets.

To read a 2006 story about an MSU rocket roaring into space above the New Mexico desert, visit, http://www.montana.edu/news/3363/msu-rocket-roars-into-space-above-new-mexico-desert.

A link to the MOSES project can be found at MSU’s Solar Physics Group: http://solar.physics.montana.edu/sol_phys/index.shtml

Contact: Tracy Ellig, (406) 994-5607 or tellig@montana.edu; or Charles Kankelborg, (406) 994-7853 or kankel@solar.physics.montana.edu

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