Space Weather

The interaction between the solar wind and Earth's magnetic field and upper atmosphere can negatively impact the technology we rely on today — and engineers and scientists at Virginia Tech want to do something about it.

Space Diagram

Space weather creates the beautiful auroras and striking night-shining clouds, but it can also interfere with communications and GPS systems or generate electromagnetic impulses that disrupt the power grid. It is possible that space weather may also contribute to the destruction of the earth's protective ozone layer and have a relationship to global climate change.

Last year, Virginia Tech formed the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research, directed by ECE Professor Wayne Scales, for further understanding of fundamental space science, to help develop technologies to mitigate the impact of space weather, and to educate and train students in the field.

The group, referred to as Space@VT, is studying the upper atmosphere and beyond with ground-based and space-based equipment as well as with computer simulations using advanced computational physics methods. This past year alone, graduate student Lyndell Hockersmith traveled to Antarctica for the installation of a magnetometer near the South Pole; the HokieDARN radar array joined an international system observing the ionospheric electric field; an ECE professor served as deputy principal investigator for NASA's AIM mission; and Virginia Tech students became the first U.S. university students to study Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) with the first in-house Galileo (European GPS) simulator at a U.S. university.

"We want to understand the physical processes of the interactions, but we're an engineering departmment; we want to know how it affects technology."

In two years, the center grew from a proposal by Scales and Joseph J. Wang, an associate professor of aerospace and ocean engineering (AOE), to an active group of eight faculty members with international reputations and two dozen graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The center has more than $5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and various Department of Defense (DoD) agencies. Space@VT has an enthusiastic Industrial Advisory Board chaired by Dan Sable ('85, Ph.D. '91) that has greatly contributed to its rapid growth.

Three tenure-track and two research faculty members have joined ECE since 2006. That year, Robert Clauer came from the University of Michigan and is stationed at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) at Hampton, Va.; Scott Bailey came from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; and Brent Ledvina came from a post-doctoral position at the University of Texas at Austin.

The new research professors include Daniel Weimer, from Solana Scientific, Inc., and Ray Greenwald, who is retired from JHU/APL. Weimer, stationed at NIA at Hampton, is the developer of the model that has become the international standard of global electric fields and potentials. Greenwald is the chief architect of the international SuperDARN radar concept.

A major focus of the space science team is educating and training undergraduate and graduate students in the field, according to Scales. "We are pursuing a holistic approach to space research and space mission development by combining theory, modeling, observation, data analysis, and education," he says. "Our goal is to prepare students to become leaders in the field and to make important contributions to society as a whole."

The center encourages undergraduate students to get involved in its projects. Undergraduates can make a serious contribution through both building and analysis activities, according to Bailey. "The educational benefits are great," he says, "but the truth is, it's just plain fun."

The team has also been developing courses in space and atmospheric science to introduce students to the field. "One of the beautiful things about this field is you have to be just as competent at science as engineering," says Scales. "We want to understand the physical processes of the interactions, but we're an engineering department; we want to know how it affects technology. We don't want to be doing science for science's sake. It's a means to an end to understand how it affects our technology."

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