The aurora borealis, or northern lights, are geomagnetic storms generated by solar winds (electrically charged particles from the sun). The storms can interfere with communications and even cause surges on long-distance power transmission lines.
High-altitude noctilucent, or night shining clouds, are relatively new phenomenon seen mostly in the northern latitudes at the boundary of space. First spotted in the 1880s, the clouds are becoming more common and can now be seen as far south as Virginia. Space scientists are seeking to understand how they form and their relationship to meteoric dust and human activity. These charged dust clouds are the subject of theoretical, computational, and experimental study in the ECE department.
Artist's conception of a solar flare and the resulting solar wind around Earth
While the ETA telescope searches for exploding primordial black holes and neutron stars, another group at Virginia Tech is focusing a little closer to home — specifically our own upper atmosphere and solar system.
ECE’s Wayne Scales, with Joseph Wang of the aerospace and ocean engineering (AOE) department are creating a Space Science Research Group with an $805,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The group focuses on phenomena in the ionosphere and magnetosphere, where charged particles in the solar wind produce space weather, visibly observed as the aurora borealis and noctilucent (glowing night-sky) clouds, among other events. Solar flares and solar storms impact communications and power systems on Earth as well as satellites, other spacecraft, and astronauts.
“This is a most appropriate time for us to strengthen our space science research efforts,” said Scales, the principal investigator. “Due to the strong emphasis in space exploration over the coming decades, the study of the charged upper atmosphere of the earth and other bodies in the solar system will become an even more relevant and vibrant research area.”
This summer, Brent Ledvina and Scott Bailey will join the ECE faculty, adding their experimental and instrumental expertise to Tech’s theoretical and computational modeling research efforts. Ledvina, who holds a Ph.D. from Cornell, is currently a post-doctoral associate at the University of Texas at Austin, with experience in GPS/GNSS receivers, ionospheric physics, remote sensing, and software receivers. Bailey, currently on the faculty at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, is deputy project director of NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) satellite mission, which launches later this year.
The group is developing a laboratory for building scientific instruments to measure electrodynamic, plasma physics, and chemical processes in the ionosphere and magnetosphere and plans to develop an interdisciplinary Ph.D. specialization in upper atmospheric space science.