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Missions to Study the Sun and its Cycle

The upcoming solar maximum should be the most exciting one ever for scientists studying the Sun, the Earth, and the space in between. For the first time, many satellites are in place, ready to make detailed observations about the changes that will occur over the next few years and to note the varied activity of the Sun. Possibly, all of this information will lead to groundbreaking discoveries about our star.

Some observations have been available during solar maximum for tens of years, especially from ground-based observatories. The Wilcox Solar Observatory, for example, has made magnetograms of the Sun since 1975. Two solar maxima ago, Skylab took pictures of the Sun (until atmospheric drag caused by increased solar activity caused it to fall to Earth) and the Solar Maximum Mission was launched. During the last solar maximum (around 1989), the Solar Maximum Mission satellite was up (until atmospheric drag caused by increased solar activity caused it to fall to Earth).

Those observations, though extremely helpful to scientists, cannot compare in magnitude to those that will be made during the upcoming solar maximum period. In conjunction with the International Solar-Terrestrial Physics (ISTP) program, many satellites have been launched to study the Sun-Earth connection. SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory), Yohkoh, Ulysses, and TRACE (Transition Region and Coronal Explorer) view the Sun. Wind and ACE (Advanced Composition Explorer) study the solar wind. Polar watches the aurora. Geotail studies changes deep within the Earth's magnetotail. Other satellites and ground-based observatories constantly receive data about some aspect of the Sun-Earth system.

With this extensive constellation of satellites dedicated to studying the space from the Sun to the Earth, scientists will have access to sophisticated instrumentation and complex data through the upcoming solar maximum and beyond. Some of the satellites and observatories have made it their special mission to study the Sun at the height of the solar maximum; the following sites deal with these specialized instrument centers, their characteristics, and how they will help researchers learn about the solar maximum.

Brought to you by the International Solar-Terrestrial Physics Program and NASA.
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Last Modified: 8/3/00

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