NASA has selected the Texas-based Southwest Research Institute to lead the PUNCH mission, which depicts the sun. This is a groundbreaking mission that will map regions beyond the outer corona of the Sun. Dipankar Banerjee, solar physicist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, is also co-investigator of the PUNCH mission. PUNCH, which stands for "polarimeter for uniting corona and heliosphere", focuses on understanding the transition of particles from the outer corona of the sun to the solar wind that fills the interplanetary space.
"The sun and the solar wind are an interconnected system, but [these] were studied until recently with completely different technologies and scientific approaches," explains Prof. Banerjee in an email to The Hindu.
Focus on polar regions
Prof. Banerjee commented on his role as co-investigator in the PUNCH mission: "I will work to investigate how the solar wind is accelerating. I will focus on the polar regions of the sun. "The team also plans to observe the sun using joint observations from PUNCH and the ongoing Indian mission Aditya. India plans to send out its own Aditya-L1
Constellation of satellites
PUNCH will consist of a "constellation" of four suitcase-sized microsatellites orbiting the Earth in formation and exploring how the corona, the Sun's atmosphere, connects to the interplanetary medium. The mission is expected to start in 2022.
The mission will map and track the solar wind as well as the ejections of the coronal mass – huge plasma masses thrown out of the solar atmosphere. The coronal mass ejections can affect and propel space weather events near Earth.
Other missions, such as the NASA's Parker Solar Probe and the ESA-NASA Solar Orbiter Project, due to start in 2020, can study the structures of the Sun's atmosphere. The PUNCH mission improves this by tracking these structures in real time. As the solar corona is much weaker than its surface layers, it can not be viewed directly by the instruments. Therefore, PUNCH will block the sunlight to look at its corona and the structures it contains.