Iowa physicists win $3.5 million NASA grant to study auroras

Iowa physicists win $3.5 million NASA grant to study auroras

Researchers at the University of Iowa have won $3.5 million from NASA to study electrical currents between the Earth’s magnetosphere and an active, upper layer of its atmosphere that can yield auroras.

The scientists will send two sounding rockets at the same time into different altitudes in the Earth’s ionosphere to study the blast of particles generated by the sun that collide with Earth’s magnetosphere, energize particles in the region, and create the auroras in the northern and southern latitudes.

NASA is interested in learning more about these regions because the sun’s particle blast, known as the solar wind, can affect activities on Earth, such as GPS, communications and the power grid in the northern latitudes.

The sounding rockets will study the near-Earth environment that is too high for scientific balloons and too low for satellites. Cheaper and faster to develop than large satellite missions, sounding rockets often carry the latest scientific instruments on their flights, allowing for unmatched speed in the turnaround from design to implementation.

The mission is called the Aurora Current and Electrodynamics Structure (ACES) II Sounding Rocket Experiment. The team expects to launch the twin rockets in November or December 2021 from a space facility in Norway.

Scott Bounds, associate research scientist in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is the principal investigator on the ACES II project.