UNH Team Will Aid NASA Mission To Study The Edge Of Our Solar System

Jun 7, 2018

An artist's rendering of the heliosphere, a bubble formed by solar wind that encloses our solar system.
Credit NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

A University of New Hampshire astrophysics team will be part of a NASA mission to study the edge of the solar system.

UNH astrophysics professor Nathan Schwadron says he’s been working for 10 years on the instrument NASA has chosen to send into space. 

“It’s really been a culmination of basically everything I’ve done throughout my entire career,” he says. “This is the big prize.”

His instrument will study the particles that emanate from the Sun and speed outward to form the heliosphere – the bubble that separates our solar system from interstellar space.

Schwadron says scientists hope to learn more about the heliosphere, and how the particles that feed it may affect high-altitude air travel on Earth.

He says they’ll also study particles outside the heliosphere – which could help scientists unravel the mysteries of how the universe formed. He describes those unknowns as “miracles.”

A map of the solar system and its nearby galactic region shows that the heliosphere extends about 100 Astronomical Units out from the Sun. 1 AU is the distance between the Sun and the Earth.
Credit NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

“Before you understand the detailed physics, you’re usually just waving your hands and talking in a fairly vague way about how these processes occur,” Schwadron says. “Until you really measure them directly, it’s still a miracle.”

He says he likes studying the Sun because it’s close to home – meaning scientists can study particles headed for the heliosphere without having to go even close to all the way there.

“The sun is the universe we can actually study,” he says. “I always found it very exciting that we could be making direct measurements, developing theories, and be able to rule things out and test them directly within our lifetimes.”

His team’s instrument is one of 10 launching on NASA's Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe in 2024.

As part of the project, UNH will also work with groups that support student scientists – especially women and people of color – to build instruments to study Earth’s magnetic field.