Both on land and in space, Earth’s technology-centered civilization is increasingly vulnerable to the powerful bursts of electromagnetic radiation, energetic charged particles and magnetized plasma known as space weather. As the complexity of engineered systems increases, as new technologies are invented and deployed, and as humans venture ever further beyond Earth’s surface, both human-built systems and humans themselves become more susceptible to the effects of the planet’s space environment.
It is with these vulnerabilities in mind – and in response to urgent calls from government agencies, insurers, electrical grid operators and others for more sophisticated research, forecasting and mitigation strategies – that New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is forming the multidisciplinary Institute for Space Weather Sciences to advance both theoretical and applied research on our civilization’s interface with these cosmic forces.
Led by Haimin Wang, distinguished professor of physics and chief scientist at NJIT’s Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO), the Institute will combine the strengths of the university’s groundbreaking solar scientists with powerful computing and mathematical capabilities. Its mission will be to safeguard national security, the global economy and human safety.
At the institute’s launch at NJIT’s annual Research Centers and Laboratories Showcase and President’s Forum, Wang recalled knowing “nothing” about space weather while he was a graduate student, because the instruments to study it in depth and precision did not yet exist. “But as technology advances, we understand more and more about its impact,” he noted.
Mona Kessel, Ph.D., the NASA program and research scientist who delivered the keynote address at the 2018 showcase, pointed to GPS as an example of a space-based “highly utilized commodity we’re quite dependent on” that is at risk of major disruption from space weather. She added, “There are things we can do on Earth to prepare.”
At the institute’s core is the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research (CSTR). With its array of unique instruments on land and in space – the world’s largest operating solar telescope, a newly expanded radio array with 15 antennas, instruments aboard NASA’s Van Allen Probes spacecraft and devices deployed across Antarctica, to name a few – the Center is uniquely poised to advance understanding of the genesis, acceleration and impact of solar storms, as well as provide a comprehensive view of solar activity over months and years.
Joining the CSTR are modeling and big data analytics experts at the Center for Computational Heliophysics, who partner with NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing division at the NASA Ames Research Center, and researchers at the Center for Big Data. The latter’s mission will be to synergize expertise in various disciplines across the NJIT campus and to build a unified platform that embodies a rich set of big data-enabling technologies and services with optimized performance.
Indeed, the specter of a geomagnetic solar storm with the ferocity to disrupt communications satellites, knock out GPS systems, shut down air travel and quench lights, computers and telephones in millions of homes for days, months or even years is a low-probability, but high-impact risk that space scientists, global insurance corporations and federal agencies from the Department of Homeland Security, to NASA, to the Department of Defense take seriously.
While the recent solar cycle has been relatively inactive, Kessel noted, there have been periods in which storms have been more sustained and ferocious. “But it wasn’t so important back then. We didn’t rely on space the way we do now. It’s important to gather knowledge that we pass down.”
The future of space-based research will also depend on the scientific community’s ability to create materials and systems able to withstand powerful cosmic radiation on long space trips. “We’d like to (send humans) to Mars, but we can’t yet,” she added.
In addition to applied research, Wang says the institute will focus in particular on several fundamental questions: how energy builds toward a solar eruption; the mechanisms that trigger solar eruptions; the reason that some eruptions reach Earth, while others do not; and the effects of eruptions on earth, such as high-energy particles and geomagnetic storms.
But these questions do not preoccupy researchers alone. As NJIT President Joel Bloom noted at the launch, “As I travel, talking to leaders in the Air Force, China and Egypt, space is increasingly a topic of conversation.”
As he watched NASA’s Mars InSight successfully land on the surface of the planet, Vince DeCaprio, vice chair of the NJIT Board of Trustees and a supporter, with his family, of the annual President’s Forum, noted the power of scientific discovery to bring researchers and peoples together. The point of the forum, he added, is to explore “the effect of science on society and on our lives.”
Recent Space Weather Milestones
Why Does the Corona Sizzle at 1 Million °F?
The Sun’s corona, invisible to the human eye except when it appears briefly as a fiery halo of plasma during a solar eclipse, remains a puzzle even to scientists who study it closely. Beginning 1,300 miles from the star’s surface and extending millions more in every direction, it is more than a hundred times hotter than lower layers much closer to the fusion reactor at the Sun’s core.
A team of physicists, led by NJIT’s Gregory Fleishman, has recently discovered a phenomenon that may begin to untangle what they call “one of the greatest challenges for solar modeling” – determining the physical mechanisms that heat the upper atmosphere to 1 million degrees Fahrenheit and higher. Their findings, which account for previously undetected thermal energy in the corona, were published in the 123-year-old Astrophysical Journal.
With a series of observations from NASA’s space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the team has revealed regions in the corona with elevated levels of heavy metal ions contained in magnetic flux tubes – concentrations of magnetic fields – which carry an electrical current. Their vivid images, captured in the extreme (short wave) ultraviolet band, reveal disproportionally large – by a factor of five or more - concentrations of multiply charged metals compared to single-electron ions of hydrogen, than exist in the photosphere.
Exploiting the Imaging Power of Radio Waves
In 2017, a massive new region of magnetic field erupted on the Sun’s surface next to an existing sunspot. The powerful collision of magnetic fields produced a series of potent solar flares, causing turbulent space weather conditions at Earth. These were the first flares to be captured, in their moment-by-moment progression, by NJIT’s recently expanded Owens Valley Solar Array (EOVSA).
With 13 antennas now working together, EOVSA was able to make images of the flare in multiple radio frequencies simultaneously for the first time. This enhanced ability to peer into the mechanics of flares offers scientists new pathways to investigate the most powerful eruptions in our solar system.
“These September flares included two of the strongest of the current 11-year solar activity cycle, hurling radiation and charged particles toward Earth that disrupted radio communications,” said Dale Gary, distinguished professor of physics at NJIT’s Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research (CSTR) and EOVSA’s director, who presented findings Triennial Earth-Sun Summit (TESS) meeting, which brings together the solar physics division of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and the solar physics and aeronomy section of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
Calling on Citizen Scientists to Probe the Ionosphere
Stationed directly along the “path of totality” of the 2017 solar eclipse, Nathaniel Frissell, an assistant research professor of physics at NJIT’s Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research, led one of the largest ionospheric experiments in the history of space science. He spent the day making contact via a 102-ft. wire antenna with a network of ham radio operators he’d assembled around the world to test the strength and reach of their high frequency signals as one measure of the eclipse’s impact on Earth’s atmosphere. By early that morning, more than 1,300 operators had registered to take part in his Solar Eclipse QSO Party as “citizen-scientists” by recording their contacts with one another during the event.
“We used our transmissions to identify how much of the ionosphere would be affected by the eclipse and how long those effects would last, among other phenomena,” Frissell said. He found that the eclipse caused a 2-hour loss of communications on 14 MHz, a lengthening of communications paths on 7 MHz, and an opening of communication paths on 3.5 and 1.8 MHz. With the help of NJIT computer science major Joshua Vega, Frissell was able to simulate the eclipse results using the NJIT super computer cluster and found good agreement with the physics-based prediction of eclipse impacts generated by the Naval Research Laboratory. These results have been published in Geophysical Research Letters, and will be presented at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in Washington, D.C. this December.
Frissell and collaborators are now developing a Personal Space Weather platform, a device that amateur scientists could build or buy to monitor space weather locally, while contributing to a global database for research. “The geospace system is quite vast, and remains under-sampled. The professional space science instrumentation networks will benefit by having additional measurements from citizen observers,” he notes. Frissell is working closely with the amateur radio engineering group, TAPR (https://tapr.org/), to develop this system. Collaborators, including from the amateur radio and science communities, will gather next March at the 2019 HamSCI Workshop, which Frissell is organizing at Case Western Reserve University. In addition to NJIT and Case Western, representatives from the MIT Haystack Observatory, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and Clemson University are expected to participate.
Big Bear Solar Observatory
A groundbreaking new optical device, developed at NJIT’s Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) to correct images of the Sun distorted by multiple layers of atmospheric turbulence, is providing scientists with the most precisely detailed, real-time pictures to date of solar activity occurring across vast stretches of the star’s surface.
The observatory’s 1.6-meter Goode Solar Telescope, the largest operating solar telescope, can now produce simultaneous images, for example, of massive explosions such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections that are occurring at approximately the same time across large structures such as a 20,000-mile-wide sunspot in the Sun’s photosphere.
“To understand the fundamental dynamics of the Sun, such as the origin of solar storms, we need to collect data from as wide a field of view as possible,” says Philip Goode, distinguished research professor of physics at NJIT and the leader of an international team of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop this next-generation optical system.
SOLIS (Synoptic Optical Long-term Investigations of the Sun)
A solar telescope that captures images of the entire disk of the Sun, monitoring eruptions taking place simultaneously in different magnetic fields in both the photosphere and chromosphere, was recently installed beside the Goode Solar Telescope (GST) at NJIT’s California-based Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO).
The telescope, SOLIS (Synoptic Optical Long-term Investigations of the Sun), collects images from three separate instruments over years and even decades, rather than minutes or hours, giving scientists a comprehensive view of solar activity such as flares and coronal mass injections over the long-term. It will complement the GST, which gathers high-resolution images of individual explosions at such detail that researchers are beginning to unveil the mechanical operations that trigger them.
“With this important addition, BBSO becomes a comprehensive observing site that offers not only high-resolution solar observations, but also global data of our star,” notes Wenda Cao, an NJIT professor of physics and BBSO’s director. “By monitoring variations in the Sun on a continuing basis for several decades, we will better understand the solar activity cycle, sudden energy releases in the solar atmosphere, fluxes in solar irradiance, or brightness, and their relationship to global change on Earth.”
Expanded Owens Valley Solar Array
The Expanded Owens Valley Solar Array (EOVSA), which is funded by the National Science Foundation, is the first radio imaging instrument that can make spectral images fast enough – in one second – to follow the rapid changes that occur in solar flares. This capability allows the radio spectrum to be measured dynamically throughout the flaring region, to pinpoint the location of particle acceleration and map where those particles travel. Images of solar flares at most other wavelengths show only the consequences of heating by the accelerated particles, whereas radio emission can directly show the particles themselves.
Radio emissions are generated by energetic electrons accelerated in the corona, the Sun’s hot upper atmosphere. Modern solar physics relies on observations at many wavelengths; radio imaging complements these by directly observing the particle acceleration that drives the whole process. By measuring the radio spectrum at different places in the solar atmosphere, especially when it is able to do so fast enough to follow changes during solar flares, it becomes a powerful diagnostic of the fast-changing solar environment during these eruptions.
“One of the great mysteries of solar research is to understand how the Sun produces extremely high-energy particles in such a short time,” notes EOVSA Director Dale Gary, distinguished professor of physics. “But to answer that question, we must have quantitative diagnostics of both the particles and the environment, especially the magnetic field that is at the heart of the energy release. EOVSA makes that possible at radio wavelengths for the first time.”
Van Allen Probes
The twin Van Allen Probes spacecraft are the most modern research initiatives to provide the requisite data and theoretical understandings of the very dynamic radiation environment around Earth, an environment that has to be well understood and quantitatively characterized in order to successfully design and operate contemporary commercial and national security satellites. This mission, launched in 2012, continues the objective of ever more sophisticated radiation belt studies by the United States since the discovery of the belts by James Van Allen in 1958.
Because of the finite fuel for satellite orbit control, the mission will begin its de-orbiting process in the spring of 2019, with end of mission in 2020. Data taking will continue during these times. The mission Science Working Group Meeting hosted by NJIT in August brought together more than 50 members of the Van Allen Probes science instruments investigation teams.
“Post-mission, there will be a continued emphasis on assimilating and using the data for the building of ever better models of the radiation environment,” says Louis Lanzerotti, distinguished research professor of physics and principal investigator of the Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE) instrument aboard the spacecraft. “These will be ‘big data’ projects for future design purposes. The models will not just be static, but will also be time dependent on solar conditions for use in forecasting and predicting hazardous radiation conditions for both robotic and human missions.”
Polar Geospace Instruments in Antarctica
NJIT researchers have been journeying to the nearly empty, frozen wilderness at the tip of the globe since 2007 to collect data on fluctuations in the magnetic lines caused by solar wind and to measure light from the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, the luminous collision of charged particles drawn by the South Pole’s magnetic field. Their instruments include photometers that collect light from the Aurora Australis and measure energy from outer space, magnetometers that measure fluctuations in the magnetic field and GPS receivers.
“Our instruments in Antarctica give us continuous data sets of the larger geospace environment, which you can’t do in space because the instruments are continuously orbiting,” says Andrew Gerrard, director of NJIT’s Center for Solar Terrestrial Research.
NJIT is now managing the major geospace instruments in Antarctica – at McMurdo Station, South Pole Station and the five AGOs – not just for its own purposes, but for the entire community of space weather physicists. In 2017, a team of NJIT engineers traveled to remote Winnebago-sized observatories positioned on magnetic meridians across the ice shelf to jack them up out of the reach of rising drifts and upgrade their instruments. Back on campus, readings from these continually powered instruments are monitored by Iridium satellite system short-burst data service.