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University of Arizona to help lead HelioSwarm mission to study solar wind

The superheated matter called plasma makes up most of the visible universe, from stars to nebulas to the northern lights.

Later this decade, the University of Arizona will help lead a mission to study plasma in and around the Earth.

“We're exploring this fundamental process and really, we're only able to do it here in the solar wind,” said deputy principal investigator Kristopher Klein, an assistant professor of planetary sciences in UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. 

A group of nine craft, dubbed HelioSwarm, will fly through intricate arrangements in and out of the Earth's protective magnetic bubble.

Klein says the Earth-sun system is a natural laboratory for understanding what happens around distant stars and black holes

“The same kinds of processes are happening there. But it's only here in our solar system that we really have the opportunity to directly measure both the fields and charged particles simultaneously,” he said.

Understanding plasma could help unravel cosmic mysteries. But knowledge about the behavior of charged particles blown off by the sun as solar wind can also protect astronauts, satellites and GPS signals.

The mission is scheduled to launch in 2028 and collect data for at least one year.

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.