Not nearly as spectacular as astrophysical or planetary missions, magnetospheric studies are nevertheless closer to the Earthling's wellbeing, since plasma environment in the immediate vicinity of the Earth is far greater factor than distant supernovae explosions or methane in the Martian atmosphere. Earth’s magnetosphere shields us from space and solar radiation, acting as an interface between the Sun and the planet and converting solar energy to ‘space weather’ phenomena. On the other hand, the Sun being the source of life on our planet is a source of disturbance as well, occasionally spurting clouds of energetic particles that interact with Earth's magnetosphere and initiate geomagnetic storms.
More than 10 spacecraft are currently looking into the changes in plasma environment, both inside and outside the Earth’s magnetosphere, providing data that link up the Sun and the Earth (and even more with interplanetary probes carrying plasma instruments). The data are already used for ‘space weather’ prediction, which can forestall actual events up to 90 minutes or less, depending on solar wind velocity.
Russia, despite its recent failures in planetary research, has been more successful in plasma studies, beginning from INTERBALL mission (4 spacecraft in Earth’s proximity working in 1995 - 2001) and counting three CORONAS solar observatories, the last of which Coronas-Foton was unfortunately lost well before scheduled date due to service systems’ malfunction.
Currently, two missions that can be launched in the near future are being discussed.
RESONANCE: The more the better
RESONANCE mission includes four similar spacecraft designed to measure plasma parameters of the Earth’s inner magnetosphere. It succeeds the earlier INTERBALL and current Cluster missions, the latter designed by European Space Agency. All of them share common idea that simultaneous observations made in different points can substantially enhance our understanding of fast plasma processes. INTERBALL, in particular, was a part of International Living with a Star Program that included several spacecraft in different regions of the near-Earth space.
The idea of simultaneous observations light brings interesting results. For example, recent measurements made by similar instruments onboard Cluster mission and Mars Express spacecraft around Mars have given substantial proof of the hypothesis that magnetic field protects our planet from loosing oxygen, while Mars, being exposed to solar wind in the absence of inner magnetic field, cannot withstand its ‘ripping’ effect.
While following this general pattern of multi-spacecraft observations, RESONANCE is unique as well thanks to its orbit, which allows four spacecraft to stay in the same region of the magnetosphere for a long time. Moreover, as the distance between the spacecraft is changeable, multi-scale observations are also possible.
The mission will use new type of bus, namely MKA-FKI (short from ‘small spacecraft for fundamental space research’), currently under development by Lavochkin design bureau. International collaboration on the project includes Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, Czech, Slovakia, the USA, Finland, and France. The launch will be performed by pairs and is scheduled for the end of 2014 — beginning of 2015.
Interheliozond: approaching the Sun
On the other end of the solar-terrestrial chain is the Sun whose variability acts as a pacemaker for terrestrial cycles. To understand solar phenomena, high spatial and temporal resolution is crucial. Interheliozond attempts to penetrate deeper into the solar corona and to look at the star from different angles.
The project planned for 2017 implies that a spacecraft will be sent along a long trajectory involving gravitational maneuvers near Venus to the solar vicinity, approximately to the point 21 million km from the Sun (1/7 of the distance from the Sun to the Earth). Moreover, as the spacecraft will be orbiting the star thrice as fast as the Earth, it will provide data from other regions of the solar surface, otherwise invisible from the Earth, even from the polar regions of the star since the spacecraft will temporarily leave the ecliptic plane.
0If implemented, such project will significantly contribute to solar physics that currently seeks for new methods to observe the Sun with ever greater resolution and precision. The quality of data is crucial for 'space weather' prediction, which becomes no less significant as the number of satellites increases.