Storm Stopper

Physicist’s 3-D model aims to protect planet from harmful solar winds

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Bursts of energy in Earth’s upper atmosphere can disrupt satellites, power distribution systems, and other vital infrastructure. A UT Arlington physicist is working to minimize the damage from nasty space weather.

Armed with a three-year NASA grant, physics Assistant Professor Yue Deng is developing a 3-D model to explore how electrodynamic energy from solar winds enters and traverses the thermosphere.

Understanding the interaction between Earth’s magnetic field and its upper atmosphere may be particularly important this year and next because the sun is predicted to reach a time of heightened activity.

Right now, estimation of the amount of energy entering Earth’s thermosphere is not very precise and can be underestimated by 100 percent. We know even less about how that energy is distributed,” Dr. Deng says. “This information is critical because if you put the same amount of energy at 400 kilometers, the impact can be 100 times larger than if you put it at 100 kilometers.”

Solar wind—plasma from the sun—travels through space at about 400 kilometers per second carrying a magnetic field. Usually, Earth’s magnetic field protects it from this plasma radiation. But solar flares and other activity on the sun’s surface can increase the energy traveling toward Earth, with some of the radiation passing through the magnetosphere at the planet’s magnetic poles.

Energy entering the thermosphere after a solar storm can wreak havoc on scientists’ ability to track satellites orbiting 100–500 kilometers above the ground. A solar storm in March 1989 caused trackers to temporarily lose about 1,000 satellites.

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