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SwRI-led PUNCH mission launches associate investigator program

April 27, 2021 — The Polarimeter to UNify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH) mission has selected four early career scientists as associate investigators to pursue solar science under the mentorship of senior PUNCH science team members. Southwest Research Institute is leading PUNCH, a NASA Small Explorer (SMEX) mission that will integrate understanding of the Sun’s corona, the outer atmosphere visible during total solar eclipses, with the “solar wind” filling the solar system.

The solar wind, a supersonic stream of charged particles emitted by the Sun, fills the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space encompassing our solar system. Its boundary, where the interstellar medium and solar wind pressures balance, ends the sphere of the Sun’s influence.

PUNCH is a constellation of four suitcase-sized satellites that will orbit the Earth in a polar formation. One satellite carries a coronagraph, the Narrow Field Imager, that images the Sun’s corona continuously. The other three each carry SwRI-developed wide-angle cameras, Wide Field Imagers (WFI), optimized to image the solar wind. These four instruments work together to form a single field of view spanning 90 degrees of the sky, centered on the Sun.

“We instituted this program to recognize and encourage young scientists to explore problems that support and enhance PUNCH mission science,” said PUNCH Principal Investigator Dr. Craig DeForest of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. “We are pairing the associate investigators with mentors, allowing them to attend team meetings, participate in PUNCH working group activities and present at PUNCH science meetings.”

The associate investigators appointed are Dr. Raphael Attie, a NASA researcher and assistant professor at George Mason University; Dr. Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, a post-doctorate researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center from Universities Space Research Association; Chris Gilly, a graduate research assistant from the University of Colorado Boulder; and Dr. Elena Provornikova, who is on the senior research staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Attie has developed plasma flow tracking algorithms using solar imagery data to understand how the solar plasma interacts with the solar magnetic field to activate energy release in the Sun’s corona. For PUNCH, Attie will adapt these techniques to build future data products to measure plasma flows in the solar wind. 

Gallardo-Lacourt specializes in Earth’s magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling, particularly by visualizing the dynamic coupling in aurora using optical flow techniques. For PUNCH, she will apply these techniques to tracking solar wind structures as they form, evolve and propagate.

Gilly works at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, investigating how the solar corona is heated to millions of degrees and how the solar wind is accelerated. He brings his expertise modelling coronal spectral lines to understand line-of-sight effects to the PUNCH science team, helping refine physical models by simulating observations.

Provornikova has developed models to understand how interplanetary coronal mass ejections of various geometries, speeds and sizes propagate and evolve. She will test various data analysis algorithms on these simulations to prepare for PUNCH observations.

“In addition to lending their unique expertise to the team, we hope the associate investigators will act as liaisons, communicating PUNCH science to the broader solar research community and community needs back to the project,” DeForest said. “In this way, they help grow the PUNCH user base and also benefit from the experience of being embedded in a NASA mission at an early stage of their careers.”

NASA’s SMEX program provides frequent flight opportunities for world-class scientific investigations from space using innovative, efficient approaches within the heliophysics and astrophysics science areas. In addition to leading the PUNCH science mission, SwRI will operate the mission and build the four spacecraft and three WFIs. The PUNCH team includes the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, which is building the Narrow Field Imager, and RAL Space in Oxfordshire, England.

For more information, visit Heliophysics or contact Deb Schmid, +1 210 522 2254, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, 6220 Culebra Road, San Antonio, TX 78238-5166.