Grant project to study sun's neutrinos from low Earth orbit

Neutrino nano satelliteCourtesy graphic
A neutrino detector carried by a nanosatellite in low Earth orbit. 


Nick Solomey and his research collaborators recently earned a $2 million grant from NASA to study the sun’s neutrinos from low Earth orbit. 

The grant project, “Cube-sat Space Flight Test of a Neutrino Detector,” will allow Solomey’s team to investigate the sun’s neutrinos from low Earth orbit, something that has not been done previously. 

Neutrinos are miniscule subatomic particles that are similar to electrons, but have no charge and almost negligible mass. Understanding neutrinos holds the keys to understanding the structure of the universe and the origin of mass. According to, neutrinos are the second most abundant fundamental particle in the universe, and the sun is the source of most of these neutrinos.

This is the third grant in successive phases that Solomey has procured from NASA for his quest to learn more about neutrinos. One of the key outcomes of the project will be the development and testing of a cube-sat, a kind of nanosatellite. It will carry and test the neutrino detector in low Earth orbit to prove the detector can operate in space and measure the rate of cosmic and gamma rays.

Neutrino detectors currently in use are positioned deep below the Earth’s surface.

“This new concept detector uses a double-delayed coincidence, so the detector does not need shielding,” Solomey, professor of physics, said.

“Our detector is very risky because it’s never operated as a neutrino detector in space, let alone close to the sun.”

The spacecraft of the eventual mission will allow scientists to study the sun’s neutrino emission and the galactic core neutrinos’ gravitational focus.

“The sun’s core determines what is going on at the surface of the sun right now,” Solomey said. “Nuclear fusion in the core is producing the energy that’s driving the sun, but it takes anywhere from 80,000-100,000 years for the energy, through convection, to reach the surface of the sun.

“When it reaches the surface of the sun and then boils off, it makes light,” Solomey said, “and of course, all the light that we get from the sun is what sustains us.”

Solomey’s grant involves NASA scientists and particle physicists. Solomey’s team members include Atri Dutta, Hyuck Kwon, and Holger Meyer, all from Wichita State University; Mark Christl, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center; Brian M. Sutin, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Robert McTaggart, South Dakota State University; and Gregory Pawloski, University of Minnesota.