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Joint ESA/NASA mission to use SPICE to explore the center of the Solar System

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Boulder, Colo. — March 20, 2009 — An imaging coronal spectrograph called SPICE (Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment), designed by scientists and engineers at Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®) in Boulder has been selected by ESA and NASA for the European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter mission to explore the innermost regions of the solar system from the closest distances to the Sun ever attempted. Solar Orbiter will be positioned at a unique vantage point, about one-fourth the distance of the Earth from the Sun.

The SPICE instrument is one of 10 selected to fly aboard the joint ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter mission. SPICE will remotely measure different wavelengths of light emitted from the Sun to evaluate the plasma properties and composition of the solar atmosphere using unprecedented spatial and spectral resolution. The data will advance our knowledge of the Sunís dynamics to better understand the effects on Earth and the solar system. SPICE is expected to help understand the connection between in-situ measurements of the solar wind and its source regions near the Sun.

"SPICE is uniquely suited to fill a critical gap in our understanding of the basic conditions near the Sun and how these conditions effect the solar wind and the space environment near Earth," says Dr. Don Hassler, SPICE principal investigator and program director in the Boulder office of SwRI's Space Science and Engineering Division. 

The SPICE investigation is part of NASA's Living with a Star Program, which is designed to understand how and why the Sun varies, how planetary systems respond, and the effects on human space and Earth activities. NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center manages the program for the agency's Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate. 

"One of the greatest threats to human space exploration is the sudden, unpredictable occurrence of radiation outbursts from the Sun," says Hassler. "Even satellites and power grids on and around Earth are at risk. By improving our understanding of the dynamics of the Sun, SPICE will help develop the capability for forecasting and predicting solar conditions that could affect space travelers as well as life here on Earth."

SwRI is leading the development of SPICE, in collaboration with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, Md.), Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (United Kingdom), Max Planck Institute (Germany), Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale (France) and Institute for Theoretical Physics (Norway). The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is currently scheduled for launch in 2017.

Since the early 1990s, SwRI has developed instruments both for the in-situ measurement of the electrically charged particles that populate the solar system and for the remote observation of ultraviolet and energetic neutral atom emissions from various solar system bodies. SwRI-built instruments are currently flying on the Cassini and New Horizons planetary probes, the Rosetta comet mission, and the TWINS magnetospheric imaging mission and are included in the payloads of  the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the Juno Jupiter orbiter, the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter and the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission.

Editors: An image to accompany this story is available at http://www.swri.org/press/2009/spice.htm.

For more information contact Maria Stothoff at (210) 522-3305, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, PO Drawer 28510, San Antonio, TX 78228-0510.

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