The SMILE spacecraft will observe Earth's magnetosphere from a vantage point of a third of the distance to the moon. Photo by ESA
March 5 (UPI) -- The European Space Agency have given the go-ahead to the SMILE mission, a joint effort with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to study to sun-Earth connection.
The mission will focus the interactions between solar particles and electromagnetic forces inside Earth's magnetosphere.
SMILE evolved out of a pair of workshops organized to encourage increased collaboration between researchers Europe and China. After the workshops, ESA called for participants to submit mission proposals.
Though plans may change, the current mission calls for a 5,000-pound probe to be carried into space by either a European Vega-C or Ariane 6-2 rocket. The launch is scheduled for 2023.
Once in space, the probe will alternate between two different orbits. The more distant orbit, one third of the distance to the moon, will give the spacecraft a wide-angle view of the magnetosphere. Periodically, the probe will move into a closer orbit to relay its collected data to ESA ground stations.
The wider orbit will allow the spacecraft and its instruments to collect continual data, images and movies of the magnetopause, the boundary where the sun's streaming particles butt up against Earth's electromagnetic field.
The spacecraft will also closely observe the polar cusps, weaker parts of the magnetosphere where solar wind particles more easily penetrate and collide with Earth's ionosphere. Polar cusps host the aurora borealis.
"SMILE will provide the first X-ray images and movies of the region where the solar wind slams into the magnetosphere," Philippe Escoubet, ESA's SMILE study scientist, said in a news release. "It will also provide the longest-ever ultraviolet imagery of the northern aurora, enabling researchers to see how the aurora changes over time and to understand how geomagnetic storms evolve."
The SMILE probe will be outfitted with four instruments. The Soft X-ray Imager, designed by European scientists, will study the collision between solar wind and the magnetosphere. The Ultra-Violet Imager, developed by Canadian researchers, will observe the distribution of auroras in Earth's upper atmosphere.
The two instruments provided by China, the Light Ion Analyzer and Magnetometer, will directly measure the high energy particles in solar wind, as well as their effect on the local electromagnetic field.
When the SMILE mission was first coming together, NASA considered joining the effort, but a three-way collaboration was not to be.
Technically, the United States government and NASA are prohibited from working with China's space agency and state-owned companies. But earlier this year, Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the Chinese National Space Agency, said NASA offered to help China observe touchdown the touchdown of its moon lander, Chang'e 4, using the American space agency's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.