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Discovery/New Frontiers

Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during a planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon

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Science Mission

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Understanding Our Solar System

    Observations from Hinode's X Observations from Hinode's X-Ray Telescope of the north pole of the sun. Image Credit: SAO/NASA/JAXA/NAOJ
    Since the beginning of time, people have been watching the planets, moons, and stars as well as the comets as they move across the sky. In the next few decades, NASA intends to deepen our understanding of the solar system, with spacecraft fanning out to destinations from the innermost planet to the very edge of our sun's influence. Some will stay in Earth's orbit; others will follow looping one-way trajectories through the gravitational forces of the planets; and a few will come back carrying priceless samples from other worlds.

    The space scientists and engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center are continually advancing our awareness and understanding of the sun-Earth planetary system. Marshall manages the Discovery and New Frontiers programs, which include lower-cost, highly focused planetary science investigations designed to increase our knowledge of the solar system. Marshall provides mission oversight, technology planning, systems assessment, flight assurance and public outreach.

    The solar physics group at Marshall was formed in the early 1970s in conjunction with the Apollo Space Lab mission. The group seeks to understand how the sun works, why it changes, and how these changes affect space exploration and influence us on Earth. They use a variety of instruments, such as telescopes and probes, to study sun-influenced space weather and energetic particle emissions from solar flares and other solar eruptions. It is important to understand these phenomena because they can adversely affect satellites and pose a threat to astronauts. The effect on the Earth's magnetic field can also impact electrical systems, destroying equipment and knocking out power to large areas.

    The expertise of this solar physics team plays a critical role in many NASA-led and international missions. One example is the Hinode mission, which seeks to explore the sun's magnetic fields to improve our understanding of the mechanisms that power the solar atmosphere and drive solar eruptions. Hinode is a collaborative mission led by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, NASA, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, and the European Space Agency. Marshall managed the development of Hinode's scientific instrumentation and currently manages the U.S. portion of the science derived from the spacecraft’s three instruments.

Solar Science Resources