Over the next decade, researchers with the University of Colorado Boulder will design and build an instrument for a NASA mission that will help the world better understand the ways extreme weather conditions in space can impact Earth.

CU Boulder and the University of California Berkeley were recently selected by NASA to jointly design and build the instrument that will used during NASA’s Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission, which will study Earth’s upper atmosphere.

David Malaspina, assistant professor at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU Boulder, is working on designing and building an instrument for a NASA mission.Credit: CU Boulder

David Malaspina, assistant professor at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU Boulder who is also working on the project, said the instrument will be flying about 200 miles up in Earth’s atmosphere, which is a similar distance from Boulder to Grand Junction.

“What our instrument is going to be exploring is this edge of space, where the atmosphere goes from being 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 the early stages. She said the instrument will not launch until 2027, at the soonest.

“I expect that (for at least) 10 years, CU will be highly active in this project,” she said.

The instrument, known as the Atmospheric Electrodynamics probe for THERmal plasma, will measure how the upper atmosphere responds to energy such as weather and the impacts it can have on power lines and GPS signals, Andersson said.

“When it’s highly turbulent, it will make the GPS signal decrease in quality, so your precision will go down,” she said. “Any signal that goes up to the satellite can be impacted by the region you are flying through. We need to understand where that happens and how it happens, so we can either predict or suggest better frequencies where this will not impact the information going from the surface to the satellites.”

Malaspina said for the first time, this mission will give scientists the ability to record measurements for both neutral gases and plasma — hot gases like the sun — at different points around the Earth all at the same time. He said this is critical in order to improve existing data and collect new data.

“The analogy I have heard before is, ‘Imagine trying to measure the ocean with a single thermometer,’” he said. “It will tell you the temperature in one location, but it won’t really tell you what’s going on in the broader space, and that’s what we’ve been doing up until now. We’ve been taking one thermometer and moving it around, but what we would like to do is put out six at the same time and move them around.”

Malaspina said before people launch more satellites into the upper atmosphere, scientists need to know and understand more about weather patterns.

“I think the space weather application of trying to understand and predict the impacts of space weather on Earth and near Earth space are vital things, especially as humanity puts more time and energy into moving into space and operating in space,” he said.

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Annie Mehl
2022-06-02 02:43:25
Boulder Daily Camera
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