On August 23-24, more than 60 engineers and scientists will gather at Southwest Research Institute to kick off the launch vehicle collaboration for NASA’s Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH) mission. PUNCH, which will investigate the origins of the solar wind, has secured a seat in space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9, alongside NASA’s Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Re-ionization, and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission.
PUNCH, a constellation of four suitcase-sized satellites, will investigate the sun’s outer atmosphere, known as the corona, and how it generates solar wind. This continuous supersonic stream of charged particles fills the solar system, forming our heliosphere, a bubble-like region of space. The spacecraft will also monitor coronal mass ejections, which are large eruptions of solar material that can cause large space weather events near Earth, in order to better understand their evolution and develop new techniques for predicting such eruptions.
“It’s great to have a definite launch date and vehicle, and we’re looking forward to working with the SPHEREx team as we ‘carpool’ to orbit,” said Craig DeForest, principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute and PUNCH principal investigator. “Rideshares are a great way to save money by utilising the capabilities of each rocket.”
The PUNCH team can now finalise its schedule in order to meet the new launch date of April 2025. This extended timeline will also help to alleviate post-pandemic supply chain issues.
Following launch, the PUNCH satellites will spread out around the Earth along the day-night line to provide a continuous, all-encompassing view of the sun’s corona and the inner solar system. Three PUNCH satellites will be equipped with identical Wide Field Imagers, which will cover a large portion of the sky around the sun. The fourth PUNCH satellite will carry a coronagraph with a Narrow Field Imager to study regions closest to the sun. In flight, all four cameras will be synchronised so that the mission science team can seamlessly combine their images into a single large field of view.