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SwRI awarded contract to develop Solar Wind Plasma Sensor

(22 July 2020 - SwRI) A joint NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) team has awarded Southwest Research Institute a contract to develop the Solar Wind Plasma Sensor (SWiPS) for a satellite mission dedicated to tracking space weather.

SWiPS will measure the properties of solar wind ions originating from the Sun, including the very fast ions associated with coronal mass ejections that interact with the Earth’s magnetic environment.

“The satellite will collect solar wind data and coronal imagery to support NOAA’s mission to monitor and forecast space weather events,” said Dr. Robert Ebert, a principal scientist in SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division and SWiPS principal investigator. “Space weather refers to the variable conditions on the Sun and in space that can influence the performance of technology we use on Earth, such as electrical power grids, and disrupt satellite-based communication and navigation systems.”

The Space Weather Follow On-Lagrange 1 (SWFO-L1) satellite will orbit the Sun at approximately 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, a point known as L1. The satellite will make in-situ measurements of the solar wind, high-energy particles and the interplanetary magnetic field. SwRI will develop the solar wind instrument and maintain its ground system and support operations.

“The SWiPS sensor design is based on the Ion and Electron Sensor flown on ESA’s comet mission, Rosetta,” said Prachet Mokashi, a program manager in SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division and the project manager for SWiPS. “The compact design, low resource requirements and ideal data production make this a well-suited instrument for the SWFO-L1 mission.”

A traditional strength of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division is the design and fabrication of instruments for the in-situ measurement of space plasmas. These dilute ionized gases populate the immediate space environments of the Earth and other solar system bodies as well as interplanetary space.

“SwRI will play a key role in this new and exciting mission,” said Dr. Jim Burch, vice president of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. “We are building both the solar wind sensor and the magnetometer for this project to collect data for the Space Weather Prediction Center.”

NASA is planning to launch SWFO-L1 in 2024 as a rideshare with the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission. SwRI also plays a key role in that mission, managing the payload and providing scientific instruments to help analyze and map particles streaming from the edge of interstellar space and to help understand particle acceleration near Earth.

NOAA is responsible for the Space Weather Follow-On program. NASA is the program’s flight system procurement agent, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the lead for acquisition.