A team led by University of Iowa physicist Craig Kletzing has won $1.25 million from NASA to conceptualize a potential mission to study the mysterious, powerful interactions between the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth.
Kletzing’s team will vie with four others for $165 million in funding to explore how the sun affects space and the space environment around planets under NASA’s Explorers Program. At least one of the proposals is expected to be chosen in 2019. The current award is for Kletzing’s team to develop a complete proposal for the Explorers Program mission.
“What we are studying and producing is a report that shows that we can actually implement the mission,” Kletzing says. “That is, that we can build the instruments, spacecraft, and get a launch for the money—and that we know how to manage everything to make it happen on time and within the cost cap.”
Should Kletzing’s team be selected for the $165 million grant, it would be the largest single grant ever awarded to researchers at the UI.
NASA is keen to study these magnetic interactions because of their effects on Earth. If it weren’t for the magnetic bubble surrounding our planet, the sun’s supersonic, heated winds would inflict doses of harmful radiation that would affect most, if not all, life. The Earth’s magnetic field, with help from its atmosphere, wards off most of the sun’s harmful energy.
But the solar wind does find some ways to reach the Earth, through openings created when the Earth’s and sun’s magnetic fields touch. When these holes are sustained, the solar wind pours through in events called cusps. When these cusps occur, scientists can study particles in the solar wind much closer to Earth.
Cusps create an uninterrupted path leading from our planet to the sun’s atmosphere 93 million miles away. Research by Jack Scudder, professor in the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy, suggests that these magnetic openings happen dozens of times each day. Most are small and short-lived, but some are vast and sustained, which can lead to disruptions on Earth.
The energy coming from these magnetic interactions creates effects that can be mesmerizing—particularly auroras, which are also known as the northern and southern lights. But it also can be harmful, disrupting communication from satellites and other forms of communication around and on Earth.
“We use space a lot,” says Kletzing, F. Wendell Miller Professor in the physics and astronomy department and the lead on the UI’s grant, called Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites (TRACERS). “We want to understand how this chain of events works because it is important for modern technological society.”
Two particularly hazardous incidents were twin events in 2003 called the Halloween Storms, which triggered auroras that could be seen as far south as Texas. But the phenomena also interfered with GPS signals and radio communications, and caused the Federal Aviation Administration to issue its first-ever warning to airlines to avoid excess radiation by flying at low altitudes.
Currently, NASA has a mission, called MMS, in which four spacecraft are swooping around Earth’s magnetosphere, searching for the magnetic openings and observing them when they occur.
The UI’s TRACERS mission would complement MMS by studying the magnetic effects closer to Earth, where the openings that occurred further out in space ripple through.
“We’re looking at what comes out of the bottom end (of the opening) whenever magnetic reconnection happens,” Kletzing says.
Kletzing is also the principal investigator on a separate mission, TRICE-2, in which twin, almost identically instrumented rockets will be launched within minutes of each other when there’s evidence that a magnetic reconnection has occurred—easier said than done because scientists can’t predict when, or where, they will occur.
“It’ll be a bit of a nail-biter, for sure,” Kletzing says.