Research Team Awarded Nearly $1.5 Million in NASA Grants

Andrews University professor and students will take part in two significant projects

Becky St. Clair, Andrews University
Research Team Awarded Nearly $1.5 Million in NASA Grants

A professor of engineering at Andrews University, a Seventh-day Adventist-operated school in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States, recently received word that two grant proposals for research on which he is co-investigator have been selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The two grants together total nearly $1.5 million and will fund two separate but related research projects.

The first grant is for a research project studying how fast-flow events bring energy stored in the tail of the magnetospheretoward earth and how the flow of energy ultimately accelerates electrons and ions near the earth.

“This project will investigate how the fast flows excite kinetic or small-scale waves that carry energy along the field lines to the ionosphere,” says Jay Johnson, professor of engineering at Andrews University and recipient of the grants. “These waves can lead to electron precipitation (responsible for the Aurora Borealis/Australis) and ion outflows from the ionosphere.”

The second grant is for a research project studying leakage of solar wind particles across the magnetospheric boundary into the magnetosphere. This leakage is caused by collisions between particles and small-scale waves.

“The magnetosphere around Earth creates sort of a ‘rock’ in the stream of the solar wind,” Johnson explains. “The magnetosphere is not really moving compared with the solar wind, so you get an instability that develops in the boundary. The boundary starts getting wavy and develops into curls.”

We have all experienced this type of instability when we see waves develop when there is wind over water. To demonstrate the principle, Johnson holds a piece of notebook paper between his index finger and thumb, blowing on the edge of the paper. The paper quickly wiggles into waves, and is lifted by the “wind” blowing over it.

Johnson is working to understand the nature of this interaction between the solar wind and the boundary of the magnetosphere. This work is important because it determines how energy is transferred from the solar wind to the magnetosphere, driving the latter’s dynamics. Ultimately, the transferred energy affects the radiation belts inside the magnetosphere, which in turn can have an effect on any satellites in the vicinity.

“The belts change dramatically,” Johnson says. “People in my field are interested in understanding when the fluxes increase and what causes them to change so dramatically.”

And why is NASA interested in this? Because fluctuations in the outer radiation belt can be a danger to satellites.

Between Earth and the sun is a satellite run by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which scientists use to monitor activity on the sun. This allows for a 30-minute warning if anything is coming toward the Earth. Researchers like Johnson are looking to find a way to predict events ahead of those 30 minutes so necessary measures can be taken to mitigate damage to any assets nearby.

Johnson recalls that in 2012, a major event took place on the sun that hit a couple of satellites monitoring for such things.

“If that event had gone toward Earth instead of in the direction where the satellites happened to be, we would have been in a lot of trouble,” he says. “It could have knocked out major power grids and satellite communications, among other things. The idea is to understand more of what’s happening out there and how it affects our magnetosphere so we can predict the probability of events like that coming this direction.”

Johnson has a long history of receiving research funds from NASA. He is currently the principal investigator on two other NASA grant research projects and co-investigator on several others. “It’s exciting to be able to do this research,” he said.

Becky St. Clair, Andrews University