The solar will attain its photo voltaic most in 2032. A brand new NASA flagship mission may give us an ideal view

There are always more space missions than there is money to support them. Ultimately, some make the cuts, some don’t. Various factors play into this decision, although these factors may change over the years and decades some of these missions are designed for. But the more ideas the merrier, and now a new idea has emerged from a group of scientists from SWRI, NASA and the University of Minnesota, among others. Four different probes will be sent to different points in the solar system to observe the sun in an unprecedented way – just in time to witness its most spectacular display in 2032.

Dubbed COMPLETE (which doesn’t appear to be an acronym), the mission would send satellites to several different Lagrangian points in the Earth-Sun system. L4 and L5 (the trailing and leading Lagrange points) would each receive one probe, and L1, which is much closer to Earth, would receive two. Each of these probes could be launched on a Falcon Heavy rocket sometime around 2032, the expected peak of the next 11-year solar cycle.

When this cycle begins, FULL mission controllers could be watching it in unprecedented detail. Each probe would have a spectrograph to capture regular light and a magnetograph to detect magnetic fields associated with coronal mass ejections and other phenomena emanating from the Sun.

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A major focus of COMPLETE will be solar storms, which can have devastating effects on life here on Earth.

One of the most important considerations when choosing missions is cost, and four different probes for a single mission would increase the cost of COMPLETE. This is especially true given that each probe is thought to be large — much larger than a typical human. So the team behind it decided it was imperative to use probes that already have “heritage,” as the jargon calls it – meaning they were designed for another mission and don’t require expensive development effort themselves. They can be easily integrated into the probe design and each other.

These sensors are needed to answer four main questions about the magnetic and other types of energy released during momentum phenomena on the Sun. To answer these questions, the design team realized they needed sensors in several different wavelengths, including extreme ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays. Fortunately, sensors for other missions have already been developed for each of these wavelengths.

Unfortunately, there was one area where the team couldn’t get away with using technology developed for other missions – data transmission. NASA’s Deep Space Network, the most common way of communicating with probes outside Earth’s orbit, is two orders of magnitude too slow to communicate all of the data that COMPLETE’s probes will collect. NASA already has plans in the works for an optical communications system that the agency hopes to release by 2035. However, it would be a little too late to use them for the expected solar maximum in 2032 and thus the focus of the mission. Therefore, the COMPLETE team suggested putting some more money into accelerating the timing of this optical communication system so that not only COMPLETE but also other space missions in this timeframe could benefit.

Rough model of a COMPLETE probe.
Credit – Caspi et al.

So what about the final number given all the legacy hardware and required updates to the global communications infrastructure? The project team presents two different estimates for the mission, ranging from $2.1 billion to $2.5 billion. At this tier, it belongs to the “flagship” mission class, which is determined primarily based on the expected cost of the mission. Unfortunately, only a small number of flagship missions can be actively worked on at any one time, and COMPLETE has never received this recognition from any funding agency, including NASA. However, the paper describing the mission was submitted to the Heliophysics Decadal survey team and is freely available to anyone interested. With sufficient support from donors or the private sector, it could become a reality one day.

Learn more:
Caspi et al – COMPLETE: A flagship mission to fully understand 3D coronal magnetic energy release
UT – New detailed images of the Sun from the world’s most powerful ground-based solar telescope
UT – A new type of solar sail could allow us to explore hard-to-reach places in the solar system
UT – You are here! The first images from ESA’s Solar Orbiter

mission statement:
Diagram of probe locations for the COMPLETE mission.
Credit – Caspi et al.

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