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Deng studying ways to improve predictions of how space weather affects satellites, radio waves

Yue Deng, UTA professor of physics
Yue Deng, UTA professor of physics

A physicist at The University of Texas at Arlington is developing a space weather simulator capable of predicting how energy is distributed during events such as solar flares and magnetic storms.

Yue Deng, UTA professor of physics, is principal investigator on a new $899,000 supplement grant from the Department of Defense, through the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative program, or MURI. The original five-year MURI grant of $7.3 million was made in 2016.

Deng is also lead investigator for the original project, which includes space physicists from the University of California at Los Angeles; Johns Hopkins University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; University of Colorado at Boulder; University of New Mexico and the University of Texas at Dallas.

“This new supplement grant is for a project that aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of traveling ionospheric disturbances (TIDs) in light of magnetosphere-ionosphere-thermosphere coupling, which is complementary with the goal of the previous MURI project,” Deng said.

TIDs are plasma wave movements in the upper atmosphere that can be detected by a number of different instruments and are caused by the effects of gravity waves spreading upward into the ionosphere. The overall goal of the MURI project is to improve the ability of scientists to predict the energy and momentum distribution in the upper atmosphere during space weather events.

Current estimates of the energy entering the upper atmosphere during times of greatest solar output can be off by as much as 100%. Because of this, models used to forecast the trajectories of satellites orbiting a specific region can also yield an error of up to 30%, affecting the stability of GPS and communication systems.

The disturbances also can affect high-frequency radio waves, used in military, governmental and aviation communications, weather stations, maritime sea-to-shore services, distress communications and broadcasting.

“TIDs are an important category of perturbation propagating in space and time,” Deng said. “Energy and momentum are carried by horizontal and vertical waves, driving significant regional or even global variations in the ionosphere and thermosphere system. This new grant has given us the unprecedented opportunity to ask the general question of what specifically are the geospace disturbance sources for the variety of manifestations of large-scale TIDs (LSTIDs).”

Deng and her research team are working to improve the Global Ionosphere-Thermosphere Model (GITM), which gives a 3D look at how electrodynamic energy from solar winds influences the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The model, devised by Deng and Aaron Ridley, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan, is the first of its kind to incorporate information about acoustic wave propagation.

UTA doctoral student Qingyu Zhu and undergraduate student Justin Tyska, who work in Deng’s lab, are helping conduct research for the project.

College of Science Dean Morteza Khaledi congratulated Deng on the new supplemental grant and noted that the project enhances UTA’s push to be an international leader in data-driven discovery, one of the central pillars of the University’s Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact.

“Dr. Deng is recognized as a leader in space weather research, and this latest supplement grant she has secured from the Department of Defense further solidifies UTA’s standing as an important player in the field of space physics,” Khaledi said. “Dr. Deng and her team are helping to answer critical questions about how Earth’s atmosphere is affected by extreme space weather events, which can have major implications for satellites and communication systems.”

Deng has co-authored two papers relating to the TIDs research, one published and one submitted. The published paper, titled “Identification of auroral zone activity driving large-scale traveling ionospheric disturbances,” appeared in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.

She has received millions of dollars in federal funding for her research and has been honored with numerous awards and appointments. In 2018 she was named to the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Solar and Space Physics, which is tasked with supporting scientific progress in solar and space physics and assisting the United States government in planning programs.

She won the Robert S. Hyer Research Award from the Texas Section of the American Physical Society in 2012, and in 2010 she earned a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. Other honors include the College of Science Research Excellence Award in 2016, the UTA Award for Outstanding Research Achievement or Creative Accomplishment in 2017 and the UTA Award for Distinguished Record of Research or Creative Activity in 2019.