Although some rocket-borne missions last years or decades, others, such as the cast of NASA's Sounding Rockets Program, do their science during a short hop that doesn't even reach orbit.
The latest entry in that program, a payload designed to study the sun, lifted off from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on July 30. The mission, dubbed Marshall Grazing Incidence X-ray Spectrometer or MaGIXS, peered at the sun's corona, the ethereal white halo visible when the sun's face is obscured during a total solar eclipse.
The corona is full of scientific mysteries. In particular, while the sun's surface is already a metal-boiling 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,500 degrees Celsius), the corona directly above it is hundreds of times hotter still, over a million degrees on either scale. Scientists don't fully understand how that happens.
"Our knowledge of the corona's heating mechanisms is limited, partly because we've not yet been able to make detailed observations and measurements of the temperature distribution of the solar plasma in the region," Amy Winebarger, physicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said in a statement.
Scientists think that the mechanism that heats the corona is related to dramatic outbursts of light and plasma that scientists call solar flares and coronal mass ejections. (These outbursts can strike Earth or spacecraft and wreak havoc on electronics, so MaGIXS and other research on these processes could make future spaceflight safer.)
But the details of these phenomena are still unclear.
Developed by Marshall and the Smithsonian Observatory in Massachusetts, MaGIXS consisted of a telescope, a high-powered camera and an X-ray spectrometer. That last instrument observed what scientists call "soft" X-rays, like those doctors use in medical scans.
Even though these soft X-rays carry comparatively less energy, observing them could still reveal what's happening inside the sun. And specifically, the scientists behind MaGIXS hope that these X-rays — and the mission's ability to map them and their temperatures to specific solar regions — will provide evidence of either sporadic or consistent heating in the corona.
And putting such instrumentation on a suborbital mission means that projects can launch with mere months of planning, instead of years, allowing NASA's Sounding Rockets Program to launch about 20 missions each year. In particular, sounding rocket flights can develop young techniques and scientists for more complex missions down the line.
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