India Launches Mission to Study the Sun and Space Weather

The Aditya-L1 spacecraft will examine the star’s outer layers and aim to shed light on its violent—and potentially damaging—storms

People stand and watch as a rocket takes off in the background
Onlookers watch as a rocket carrying the Aditya-L1 spacecraft launches. The mission will study the sun's outer layers and the influence of solar activity on the solar system. R. Satish BABU / AFP via Getty Images

After successfully landing a spacecraft on the moon last month, India is aiming for the sun: The nation launched a mission to study our nearest star on Saturday.

The spacecraft, called Aditya-L1, will spend 110 days traveling to its destination, a spot between the Earth and sun known as the first Lagrange point. From its perch at this location, the satellite will observe the sun’s visible surface and upper atmosphere, as well as space weather.

Named after Aditya, the word for sun in Sanskrit, and the first Lagrange point (L1), the spacecraft launched at 11:50 a.m. local time on Saturday from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, a barrier island in Andhra Pradesh, India, according to a statement from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

Aditya-L1 will orbit Earth for 16 days and perform five maneuvers to pick up speed, then begin the journey to orbit around L1, per the ISRO. This spot is one of five points in space where the gravity of the Earth and sun cancel out, allowing spacecraft to remain in place relative to the two large bodies and conserve fuel. Four other spacecraft currently orbit L1, according to Nature News’ T.V. Padma. From there, Aditya-L1 will have a constant view of the sun and observe solar radiation and magnetic storms before they hit Earth’s atmosphere.

Four payloads for studying the sun will gaze at the star’s photosphere, its layer visible to us; the chromosphere, a thin layer of plasma on top of the photosphere; and the corona, the outermost layer of the sun that starts about 1,300 miles above the photosphere. The spacecraft will learn more about the origin and development of coronal mass ejections—outbursts of plasma and magnetic field from the corona—as well as solar flares, or pulses of electromagnetic radiation that can cause radio blackouts on Earth.

When plasma heats and escapes the sun’s gravity, it leaves the star in a stream of charged particles called solar wind, which travels through space and creates a magnetic field that stretches through the solar system. Three additional payloads on Aditya-L1 will study what drives space weather as well as the particles and magnetic fields around L1.

Experts say the mission could help protect technology on and around Earth.

“Knowing the activities of the sun such as solar wind or a solar eruption a couple of days ahead will help us move our satellites out of harm’s way,” former ISRO scientist Mylswamy Annadurai tells BBC News’ Geeta Pandey.

“As our dependence on space technology, and technology in general, is increasing in leaps and bounds, it has become a necessity to protect our technological assets from space weather and solar activity,” Annapurni Subramaniam, director of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, tells Nature News.

The sun’s solar activity fluctuates in a cycle that peaks roughly every 11 years, when the sun’s magnetic field “flips.” Currently, the next solar maximum is quickly approaching—originally predicted for 2025, it could arrive as soon as next year. These peaks are associated with more coronal mass ejections, which might cause more widespread auroras or damage electrical and communication systems.

India’s solar mission comes shortly after the nation’s historic moonshot: On August 23, its uncrewed Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft successfully landed near the moon’s south pole, making India the fourth country to successfully touch down on the moon and the first to land near the south pole.

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