Over the next decade, University of Colorado Boulder researchers will design and build an instrument for a NASA mission that will help the world better understand how extreme weather conditions in space can affect Earth.
CU Boulder and the University of California Berkeley were recently selected by NASA to work together to design and build the instrument that will be used during NASA’s Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission, which will study Earth’s upper atmosphere.
David Malaspina, an assistant professor in the Atmospheric and Space Physics Laboratory at CU Boulder who also works on the project, said the instrument will fly about 200 miles high in Earth’s atmosphere, which is a similar distance from Boulder to Grand Junction.
“What our instrument will be exploring is this edge of space, where the atmosphere transitions from a neutral gas — like what we breathe and live in — to ionized gas (plasma),” he said.
The instrument is expected to cost about $40 million, said Laila Andersson, a space plasma researcher at LASP.
Andersson said the project is still in its early stages. She said the instrument will not be launched until 2027 at the earliest.
“I expect CU to be very active in this project for (at least) 10 years,” she said.
The instrument, known as the Atmospheric Electrodynamics probe for THERmal plasma, will measure how the upper atmosphere responds to energy like weather and what effects that can have on power lines and GPS signals, Andersson said.
“When it’s very turbulent, the quality of the GPS signal degrades, so your accuracy decreases,” she said. “Any signal that goes to the satellite can be affected by the region you’re flying through. We need to understand where this is happening and how it’s happening so that we can predict or suggest better frequencies when it doesn’t interfere with the information going from the surface to the satellites.”
Malaspina said for the first time that this mission will give scientists the opportunity to simultaneously record measurements for both neutral gases and plasma – hot gases like the Sun – at different points on Earth. He said this is crucial to improving existing data and gathering new data.
“The analogy I’ve heard before is, ‘Imagine trying to measure the ocean with a single thermometer,'” he said. “It’ll tell you the temperature in one place, but it won’t really tell you what’s going on in the wider space, and that’s what we’ve been doing so far.” We took a thermometer and moved it around, but we’d like to take out six at a time and move them around.”
Malaspina said before humans launch more satellites into the upper atmosphere, scientists need to know and understand more about weather patterns.
“I think the application of space weather, which attempts to understand and predict the impact of space weather on Earth and near-Earth space, is critical, especially as humanity devotes more time and energy to venturing into space to move and operate in space,” he said.