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Mission Would Help Answer ‘How’s the Weather—in Space?’

UMD Astronomer Part of $1.25M NASA-Funded Feasibility Study

By Kimbra Cutlip

Illustration of space showing bow shock, magnetosheath and magnetotail

Illustration by NASA/Goddard/Aaron Kaase

An illustration shows how solar wind shapes the Earth's magnetosphere--the area in space affected by the planet's magnetic field, depicted in red. A proposed space would be the first to observe the interaction of solar wind and the magnetosphere, a dynamic that creates space weather events that affect communications, navigation and other functions.

Far from being empty, cold and dark, space has weather—and when a serious solar storm kicks up, it can affect us just as surely as those clouds on the horizon can, impeding communications networks or in extreme events, even destroying electrical infrastructure.

Compared to terrestrial weather, however, we have far less understanding or ability to forecast what’s happening beyond our atmosphere. To help remedy that, NASA has awarded a research team including University of Maryland astronomer Kyle Murphy $1.25 million to study the potential of a proposed mission to produce the first global view of space weather.

The mission, Solar-Terrestrial Observer for the Response of the Magnetosphere (STORM), would launch a satellite to the edge of Earth's magnetic field to study the interaction between solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere, the region of space where charged particles affect the planet’s magnetic field.

The solar wind—a constant stream of energetic particles and plasma ejected from the sun—drives a complex system of energy exchange in the magnetosphere known as space weather, which can interfere with the operations of spacecraft, satellites and communications signals like GPS.

“STORM will provide the first big-picture view of the magnetosphere and its response to solar wind,” said Murphy, an assistant research scientist in UMD’s Department of Astronomy who helped design the project. “The real benefit of this global view will be in providing better observations for models and forecasts of space weather."

Satellite instruments measure different components of space weather, but scientists have never been able to get a global view of the entire space weather system or track how energy and plasma flow from the solar wind through the magnetosphere.

STORM is one of five proposals selected by NASA to conduct a nine-month mission concept study. NASA will then choose up to two proposals to go forward to launch. If STORM is selected, the project will be funded up to $250 million by NASA’s Heliophysics Explorers’ program, and Murphy, who helped develop the science requirements and goals for the proposal, will serve as the mission’s data coordinator.

STORM would launch a satellite carrying six monitoring instruments: Two would collect data about the plasma and magnetic field at the boundary of the magnetosphere and solar wind, while four cameras would point back toward Earth to provide data on how the magnetosphere responds to changes at the boundary.

The comprehensive dataset would enable a complete view of events in the magnetosphere, allowing scientists to observe how one region affects another and better understand how space weather phenomena circulate around our planet.

“We constantly seek missions that use cutting-edge technology and novel approaches to push the boundaries of science,” said NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Each one of [the five selected] proposals offers the chance to observe something we have never before seen or to provide unprecedented insights into key areas of research, all to further the exploration of the universe we live in.”



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