Mid-Level Solar Flare
Mid-Level Solar Flare

Heliophysics and Planetary Science Branch

The Heliophysics and Planetary Science Branch studies the coupled Sun-Earth system and the terrestrial planets and icy satellites of our solar system. Our heliophysics portfolio includes instrumentation development, sounding rocket flight, and research focusing on energy transfer across physical scales throughout the solar atmosphere.  Our planetary science portfolio includes research on the origin, composition, and evolution of terrestrial planetary bodies, focusing on geological, geophysical, and related models, experiments, and observations conducted in the field, laboratory, and via analysis of remotely sensed data from space-based missions.

Excellent data from CLASP2 mission matches the theoretical model.

CLASP2 Rocket and Team Members
CLASP2 Rocket and Team Members

On April 11, 2019, the NASA Chromospheric Layer Spectropolarimeter-2, or CLASP2, sounding rocket mission was successfully launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.  The payload was recovered in good condition and the science team behind the mission were happy with the results.  In November, the CLASP2 team convened the first post-flight "CLASP2 Science Meeting" at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias.  Approximately 25 CLASP2 team members attended, representing 7 countries.  The team reviewed the status of data calibrations, progress towards releasing data, paper manuscripts in progress, and concepts for future observations.  In the words of Principal Investigator, David McKenzie (MSFC, ST13), "The science results from CLASP2 are turning out to be exactly what we promised in the proposal."

CLASP2 is a follow-on mission to CLASP, which gave scientists the first-ever polarization measurements of ultraviolet light emitted from the Sun's chromosphere.  CLASP measured the intensity and linear polarization of the hydrogen Lyman-alpha emission line.  Hydrogen Lyman-alpha is sensitive to the magnetic field through the Hanle effect which affects the linear polarization, but not circular polarization.

For CLASP2, the team re-coated the mirror to change the wavelength range.  CLASP2 also measured both linear and circular polarization, which can be used in combination to calculate the full magnetic field vector.  There are two primary spectral lines in the wavelength range of CLASP2, Mg 11 h & k, which have different sensitivities to the magnetic field, but are produced at the same altitude n the Sun's atmosphere.  One of the important results of CLASP is that having multiple lines (with different magnetic sensitivities) makes interpreting the field and calibrating the data easier. CLASP2 used this lesson when choosing the new wavelength range; Mg II h & k, and several other lines are present in the CLASP2 data. Additionally, the magnesium lines are sensitive not only to the Hanle effect, but also the Zeeman effect, which affects the circular polarization and further aids in the determination of the field vector.

CLASP2, with its remarkably steady pointing system, also had a different solar target.  CLASP was pointed at a quiet area on the Sun, while CLASP2 was first pointed at the active Sun, with its stronger magnetic field, and then at a quiet Sun area. Each area was observed for 2 1/2 minutes.  The quiet area of the Sun being measured was similar to that observed by CLASP.  All 3 cameras on CLASP2 worked as planned.  The instrument recorded 3000 spectra in less than 6 minutes and the team obtained excellent data. The CLASP2 team was able to: obtain linear and circular polarization measurements, utilize multiple lines with different magnetic sensitivities, confirm models of the chromospheric scattering process, and obtain information on the chromosphere's magnetic field.

In the image below we can see an overview of the 3 targets for CLASP2: Sun center, plage (strong field), and limb (quiet Sun).  The images are from the slit-jaw context camera.  The lines show the location of the slit.  Spectra and polarization are measured along the slit.

CLASP2 Observations

Interpreting this data is not straightforward.  Circular polarization can easily be converted to a magnetic field strength along the line of sight, but is insensitive to the rest of the field vector.  Linear polarization is sensitive to the rest of the vector, but that signal is modified by the magnetic field, the plasma properties (density, temperature, etc.) and the viewing angle.  Together the team aims to combine these two measurements to determine the full field vector.  To do that, the CLASP2 team include theorists that model the processes that occur in the Sun's atmosphere.  Comparison of the observational data with the numerical simulations provides a powerful technique for understanding the conditions that lead to the resulting measurements.  in the case of CLASP2, the theoretical model predicted very little polarization in the h line and very strong signals in the k line.  The data results matched the model, including some features that are entirely dependent on the strength of the magnetic field.  Work is ongoing to extract the full magnetic field vector from the CLASP2 measurements.

The long-term goal is to use these new measurements as a pathfinder to find a way to make magnetic measurements in the chromosphere on a regular basis and that can be interpretable.  CLASP and CLASP2 data show the validity of planning a larger scale, satellite mission and the need to probe various wavelengths to see what wavelengths and measurements we should use on that satellite.

In addition to the excellent data, the quality of the CLASP2 product from the team of engineers was outstanding.  The mission has significant hardware contributions from both MSFC and our international partners in Japan and France, which is rare for MSFC projects.  The CLASP2 team worked the project through the government furlough and was successful due to exceptional support from everyone involved.

Data are being calibrated for formal release in the next few months.

Progress on Gateway

Gateway, a moon-orbiting space station, is a key element to NASA's Artemis program.  Dr. Debra Needham (supporting Chief Exploration Scientist, Dr. Jake Bleacher) attended and helped coordinate the Gateway Utilization Coordination Panel (GUCP) during which NASA and international partners discussed science objectives and approaches to payload selection for early-stage Gateway Utilization opportunities.  Following the GUCP Panel held at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Dr. Needham helped coordinate the Gateway Payload Working Group (GPWG) during which cross-disciplinary NASA internal representatives from SMD, Space Life and Physical Science Research and Applications (SLPSRA), and Human Research Program (HRP) met to debrief on the GUCP and to discuss NASA's position on Gateway science objectives and approaches to payload selection for early Gateway Utilization opportunities, for continued discussions with international partners.  These discussions are ongoing and are important steps to advancing and sustaining human space exploration goals.


For more information and updates on Gateway, click on this link: https://www.nasa.gov/topics/moon-to-mars/lunar-gateway.

artemis 3
Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway

Dr. Renee Weber Appointed as New Marshall Chief Scientist

Portrait: Renee Weber
Portrait: Renee Weber

Congratulations to Dr. Renee Weber on her appointment as Chief Scientist for Marshall Space Flight Center! Dr. Weber is a planetary scientist and has been Marshall's Heliophysics and Planetary Science Branch Chief for several years.  Her  exceptional research on the interior geologic structure of the moon and seismic activity on the Moon and Mars, including analysis of Apollo seismic data, is directly relevant to human exploration of the Moon and Mars. She is currently a Co-Investigator and seismology science team member on the Mars InSight mission and is also serving as the Deputy Principal Investigator of the recently selected Lunar Geophysical Network Planetary Mission Concept Study for NASA's New Frontiers 5 program. Her leadership on two other NASA-funded planetary seismometer development projects also supports work on the Lunar Geophysical Network.  While her colleagues will miss her leadership and enthusiasm as Heliophysics and Planetary Science Branch Chief, we are excited about her new role as Marshall's Chief Scientist.

Space Weather Data Mining Partnership with Brazil

Dr. Linda Krause, Project Scientist of the joint US-Brazil Scintillation Prediction Observation Research Task (SPORT) satellite mission, has advanced the collegial relationship between MSFC and the Brazilian Instituto Tecnologico de Aeronautica (ITA; aka Aeronautics Institute of Technology) by codifying a new space weather data mining project to be conducted in conjunction with the science objectives of the SPORT mission.

When fully funded, the project team, which includes ST13's Drs. David Falconer, Ghee Fry, and Heidi Haviland, will mine space weather data spanning two solar cycles (23 and 24) to improve the climatology of the ionosphere during local sunrise and sunset hours.  This local time domain is where the ionosphere is both the most unpredictable (even when the ionosphere is quiescent) and the most sensitive to space weather storm perturbations.

The present study will use over 25 years' worth of solar, solar wind, geomagnetic, and ionospheric data along with mathematically sophisticated data mining and analysis techniques to 1) establish two generalized space weather parameters (i.e., solar and geomagnetic) to quantify their respective impacts on ionospheric states, per Krause et al. 2011, and subsequently being used as a tool to establish pattern-based hypotheses, 2) using those hypotheses to train a probabilistic model of ionospheric electron density profiles during twilight hours at ionosonde sites, where observational data can be used to validate the model, and 3) using physics-based models for confirmatory data analysis of the statistical hypotheses and how they relate to physics-based processes associated with the solar, geomagnetic, and ionosphere states.  The physics-based models include the Banks-Nagy-Solomon two-stream electron transport code and the SAMI-2 is another model of the ionosphere (SAMI-2) code. ITA Collaborators Drs. Marco Aridenti and Jonas Sousasantos bring invaluable expertise tot he project in the form of machine learning techniques and SAMI-2 modeling, respectively.

The ultimate goal of this project is to use space environment state files as initial and boundary conditions to drive the SAMI-2 model to predict equatorial plasma bubbles known to cause ionospheric scintillation - the primary mission objective of the joint US-Brazil SPORT satellite mission.


Highlights from the Lunar Exploration and Analysis Group Annual Meeting (LEAG)

Drs., Debra Needham, Renee Weber, Heidi Haviland (ST13/Weber), and Ms. Deanna Philips (UAH) attended the LEAG annual meeting in Washington D.C. where Ms. Philips was awarded the Dr. B. Ray Hawke Next Lunar Generation Career Development travel award.  Through the meeting, a review of the planetary science decadal survey and assessment of the community's current priorities for the next decade was discussed. Multiple groups recommended the Lunar Geophysical Network and a distributed Sample Return missions as the top two priorities for the upcoming decadal survey.

Dr. Needham co-chaired the "Planetary Formation" decadal survey breakout discussion group and served on a live at LEAG virtual panel for the public led by Mr. Andy Shaner (LPI).  Mr. Steve Clarke (NASA Deputy AA for Exploration, SMD and the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program Lead, LDEP) gave an update on the CLPS mission and upcoming opportunities for payloads, including the announcement of a new polar resource rover mission called VIPER to launch in 2022.

Dr. Greg Chavers (MSFC/HLS) gave an overview of the current capabilities of the Human Landing Systems program with Ms.Lisa Watson-Morgan in attendance. Ms Niki Werkheiser (STMD, LSII lead) discussed the goals of the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, in terms of opportunities for tech development in support of living and exploring on the lunar surface. Dr. Weber co-chaired the "Return to the Moon II: Partners to get us there" session.

Updates from commercial lunar lander services, vendors, and representatives from NASA SMD (Dr. Sarah Noble), STMD (Mr. Andrew Petro), and HEOMD (Dr. Jake Bleacher) also discussed their top priorities and intersections with lunar science.  Dr. Weber presented "Tilt-Insensitive Optical Seismometer for the Lunar Geophysical Network" and Dr. Haviland presented "Neutron Measurement System at the Lunar Surface (NMS-Lunar)". Dr. Weber also co-authored a presentation on the "Lunar Geophysical Network" and Dr. Needham spoke on the "Science at the Moon" panel in the session "The Moon in the 2020s: Beyond Artemis-3".

The meeting occurred October 28-30, 2019, with more information at the following location: https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/leag2019/.

A discussion of white papers summarizing the communities' top priority science is ongoing: Link here to sign up.

The new graphic below from NASA summarizes the meeting well with an Artemis astronaut deploying geophones on the lunar surface.

artemis geophones

Calibrated data from the High-Resolution Coronal Imager's (Hi-C 2.1) launch now available.

The third flight of the High-Resolution Coronal Imager, or Hi-C 2.1, launched successfully from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on May 29, 2018. The goal of the mission was to observe the cool corona in high resolution in coordination with multiple ground and space based telescopes to enhance our knowledge about mass and energy coupling between the chromosphere and the corona.  Specifically, the flight was designed to study two questions: are there coronal counterparts to type II spicules; and what is the relationship between chromospheric and coronal heating in active region cores?  The Sun cooperated on this mission, presenting a perfect active region near the center of the solar disk, which was needed to address the science question. The full set of calibrated data and users guide are being made available on the Virtual Solar Observatory (VSO) and the MSFC Hi-C websites.  The team's mission paper The High-Resolution Coronal Imager, Flight 2.1, is also available online and provides details about the data set and instrument (see links below).

During the five-minute flight, Hi-C 2.1 targeted Active Region 12712 and captured 78 images at a cadence of 4.4 seconds.  The instrument was modified from the original configuration of Hi-C 1 to observe the solar corona in a cooler passband peaking near 172 A and uses a new, MSFC-built, low-noise camera.  The flight has provided us with the highest spatial and temporal resolution data of the cool solar corona and transition region ever taken at this wavelength. By coordinating the flight with other solar mission observations, we were able to trace the time evolution of plasma temperature in both the corona and the transition region.  The high temporal and spatial resolution allows us to follow the evolution of small features.  The cooler temperatures target the base of the corona, allowing the data to be combined with co-observations, particularly the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), to study the connection between the chromosphere and the corona.

The first Hi-C launch captured the highest spatial resolution and cadence images of the extreme ultraviolet solar corona of an active region ever achieved and gave us the first ever observations of coronal braiding and associated magnetic energy release. This first flight has generated more than 25 refereed publications so far.  A second flight, Hi-C 2.0 suffered an electric short in the shutter wire, preventing the camera shutter from operating during flight.  A detailed analysis into this anomaly resulted in finding the fault and detailing the lessons learned, which then resulted in minor modifications in process and hardware for the successful flight of Hi-C 2.1, only two years later.  Hi-C 2.1 is the first heliophysics sounding rocket mission where the Principal Investigator, Principal Scientist, and Instrument Scientist were all women.

Hi-C 2.1 has provided the highest resolution data of the cool corona and transition area of the Sun to date and now that data is available online.  Already, at least five papers based on Hi-C 2.1 have been prepared for submission to scientific journals.  The full set of calibrated data is online now at the VSO site. The paper providing instrument details and the steps taken to process the data has also been released online. Click on the links below to view them.

Target Area
Target Area
Sharpened image of the full FOV
Sharpened image of the full FOV
Comparison image with AIA of the central portion of the FOV
Comparison image with AIA of the central portion of the FOV

The mission team paper, "The High-Resolution Coronal Imager, Flight 2.1", can be found at https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2019arXiv190905942R/abstract

The instrument paper for HI-C 2.1 is available at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11207-019-1551-2

For VSO source details, Hi-C 2.1, go to https://msfc.virtualsolar.org/Hi-C2.1.

To view Hi-C data products, go to https://hic.msfc.nasa.gov/data_products.html.

To view the Hi-C user guides, go to https://hic.msfc.nasa.gov/data_analysis.html.

For general information about Hi-C 1 and Hi-C 2.1, go to https://hic.msfc.nasa.gov/.

Solar Cruiser technology demonstration proposal selected for funding.

The “Kon-Tiki” mission proposal, submitted to NASA’s Heliophysics Division in response to the SALMON-3 Technology Demonstration Mission of Opportunity AO, was selected for a Phase A study.  The mission, renamed “Solar Cruiser” after selection, comprises a 1,666 m2 solar sail demonstration (led by Marshall and partnering with Roccor) and a compact polarimetric coronagraph built by the High Altitude Observatory.

Sun's Magnetic Fields

Both the sail and the coronagraph incorporate new technologies that will blaze a trail for transformative exploration of the solar system and heliosphere. the solar sail will demonstrate the ability to sue solar radiation as a propulsion system which could provide views of the sun not easily accessible with current technology.  The coronagraph instrument would enable simultaneous measurements of the Sun's magnetic field structure and velocity of coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. These giant explosions of solar material are ejected into space and can set off space weather storms that may interfere with utility grids on Earth, the operation of orbiting spacecraft, and human exploration of the Earth-Moon-Mars system. Improving data-gathering technology in this area is particularly useful for advance warning systems for at-risk infrastructure.

The Principal Investigator of Solar Cruiser is Mr. Les Johnson and the Marshall Science team includes Drs. David McKenzie, Laurel Rachmeler, Christian Bethge, and Sabrina Savage.

NASA Administrator Bridenstine views successful lunar regolith experiments.

Members of the planetary science group in the Heliophysics and Planetary Science Branch (ST13) partnered with the lander team, and a host of helpful supporters across the Center, to plan and execute a field campaign in Marshall’s lunar regolith testbed (part of the West Test Area) on August 14th, 2019. Three primary experiments were performed: 1) Deployment of lander-integrated strain sensors (mounted on the foot-pads) for shallow structure determination, including mapping the presence of buried obstacles; 2) Deployment of a line of geophones for regional structure determination, testing both deployed and lander-mounted configurations, and 3) Deployment of a broadband seismometer (similar to InSight’s Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure - SEIS instrument) for global structure determination. All three experiments were successful and the team is currently processing the results.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Rep. Mo Brooks, Rep. Robert Aderholt, Rep. Scott DesJarlais, and others at the lunar regolith testbed.

The experiment was then re-deployed on Friday, August 16th and served as a tour stop during NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine's visit. Many other stakeholders including Representative Mo Brooks (AL 5th), Representative Robert Aderholt (AL 4th), and Representative Scott DesJarlais (TN 4th) were also in attendance. The Administrator's visit focused on communicating MSFC lunar science goals while simultaneously demonstrating direct utility to the Artemis human exploration program.

Jezero Crater Chosen as Mars 2020 Rover Landing Site

After five years of analysis and debate, Jezero Crater has been selected as the landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission.  Jezero Crater was selected over more than 60 candidate sites primarily due to its identification as an ancient river delta.

A primary goal of the Mars 2020 mission is to search for signs of ancient life on Mars. Ideal conditions for ancient habitability on Mars are areas where water once ponded, forming sediment layers.  Dr. Fassett was the first to observe such features in Jezero Crater, identifying a river delta formed billions of years ago on the floor of the ancient lake encircled by the crater walls.  Jezero Crater hosts one of the first unambiguous fluvial sediment deposits ever mapped in detail, making it an ideal location to send NASA’s next robotic science mission.

Dr. Fassett’s scientific research focuses on using a combination of remote sensing, geologic mapping, and numerical modeling to better understand planetary surfaces and the geomorphological processes that shape them. He combined observations from the Mars Global Surveyor mission’s Mars Orbiter Camera and Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, the Mars Odyssey mission’s Thermal Emission Imaging System, and the Mars Express mission’s High Resolution Stereo Camera to perform integrated characterization of the fluvial system that once transported sediment via regional valley networks to the distributary fan on the crater floor.

Geological analysis of Jezero’s fluvial system, combined with the volume of water necessary to fill the crater, suggests the duration of water flow through this system was prolonged – at least a thousand years. The existence of sedimentary deposits implies that the early Martian environment supported overland flow and ponding of water for an extended period of time. Following Dr. Fassett’s discovery of the Jezero Crater deposits, NASA launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which hosts a high-resolution camera and imaging spectrometer. Data from these instruments later revealed the mineralogy of the delta deposits in Jezero Crater, determining that they were likely well suited for the sequestration and preservation of organic material.

Mission scientists believe that the ancient lake-delta system will provide samples of several kinds of rock, clays, and carbonates, some of which have the potential to preserve signs of past life. Jezero Crater has been considered for a landing site on previous missions but the geologic diversity that makes it such an appealing source of scientific data also makes it difficult for the team’s entry, descent, and landing (EDL) engineers to safely land a rover craft there. There are small crater impacts, numerous boulders, rocks, and depressions that could trap a rover.

Fortunately, advances in Mars entry, descent, and landing technologies allowed mission engineers and NASA scientists to consider more geologically rich and challenging sites like Jezero Carter. Among these key advances was the ability to reduce the Mars 2020 landing zone to an area 50% smaller than that considered for NASA’s Curiosity Rover and the development of a new capability called Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN). TRN enables the “sky crane” descent stage which carries the rover down to the surface and helps it avoid dangerous areas.

The Mars 2020 rover mission will search for signs of ancient habitable conditions and past microbial life. In addition, it will gather and store rock and soil samples on the planet's surface, keeping them cached until they can be returned to Earth.  This mission and its unique landing site sets the stage for the next decade of Mars exploration.

To learn more about Mars 2020 visit: https://www.nasa.gov/mars2020 and https://www.nasa.gov/mars.

Jezero Crater
Jezero Crater

Shrinking Moon May be Generating Moonquakes

The moon is shrinking and may be generating moonquakes. Click on the button below to read the latest data and analysis culled from seismometers on the moon.

CLASP-2: Extreme Rocket Science in the Desert

The NASA Chromospheric Layer Spectropolarimeter-2 (CLASP-2) sounding rocket mission was successfully launched and its payload recovered in good condition.  Click on the button below to read more this cutting-edge, Sun-gazing instrument and how it is helping to unlock new clues about how the Sun's energy travels through the atmosphere and into space.

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