Hopkins lab gets contract for sun study

NASA taps APL to build, operate fleet of spacecraft

$600 million project

Initial launch of 12-year effort planned for 2006

June 29, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel has won a $600 million NASA contract to design, build and operate a fleet of spacecraft to study the sun and its impact on the Earth.

The first launch under the 12-year contract, awarded by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, will be the Solar Dynamics Observatory, set for liftoff in 2006.

Art Poland, an astrophysicist at Goddard and the center's former project scientist on the effort, said the new enterprise will extend much of what is being done by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in its study of the sun, but will do it in a more coordinated way.

"It's like the human body," Poland said. "We have specialists looking at the stomach, the heart and the nervous system. We're going to do that, but we will be looking at the whole body and how it works as a system."

What is learned, said Larry Zanetti, APL project scientist, could be useful in space and on Earth.

The sun affects the Earth's technological systems, such as pagers and navigational guides, Zanetti said, and the research will cover radiation exposure to astronauts as well as to commuters on polar airline flights.

The new APL contract extends a remarkable string of NASA-funded space science projects the lab has won in recent years.

The list includes the recently awarded $256 million Messenger mission to send a spacecraft to orbit the planet Mercury in 2009; the $154 million Contour mission, scheduled to be launched next year on a journey to fly by a series of comets; and the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, which orbited the asteroid Eros for a year and made an unprecedented landing there in February.

"Humanity is moving out into space, and there's storms and weather out there, and we had better understand it," Poland said.

Astronauts are living on board the International Space Station, and they can be exposed to dangerous levels of solar radiation if caught outside the station during a solar storm.

Society has also become more reliant on unmanned satellites for communications, agricultural and land-use information, weather forecasts and environmental study.

Those satellites are vulnerable to damage from solar storms, as are electrical power grids and pipelines on the ground.

Scientists want to know more about how the sun works, how it influences the Earth's environment in space and human technology, and how they can better predict solar events and protect against them.

Scientists also want to know more about long-term variations in the sun's energy that can change the Earth's climate.

"That sort of thing has an impact on crops, and, therefore, the economy," Poland said. "If we can predict that, we can prepare and not have so many troubles."

The APL contract will be funded under NASA's Solar Terrestrial Probes (STP) and Living with a Star programs.

The STP program is dedicated to basic solar science. Among the STP missions being developed by APL and Goddard are the Magnetic Multiscale mission and the Magnetosphere Constellation. Both will study the Earth's magnetic field as it is jostled by the solar wind.

The Living with a Star program will fund missions to measure the sun's impact on the Earth throughout an 11-year solar cycle.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory will look at the interior of the sun "and try to understand how the magnetic fields are generated and what causes the solar cycle," Poland said.

The spacecraft will provide solar data in greater detail and at faster data rates than NASA's current observatory, called SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory).

Another project APL will develop will be Solar Sentinels, a small fleet of satellites that will monitor and report on storms of solar energy and particles as they blow across the solar system toward the Earth.

Other spacecraft will be built to study how the Earth's magnetic field and upper atmosphere react to changes in solar activity.

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