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University of Iowa News Release

Aug. 3, 2006

Photo: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., will develop and operate twin NASA spacecraft to study how the sun interacts with Earth's radiation belts. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Plasma Physics Researchers Get About $20 Million To Study Space Weather

The University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has won some $20 million from NASA to study space weather. The exact amount of the grant is to be determined in future discussions with NASA.

The UI grant is part of a larger, $100 million, two-spacecraft NASA project scheduled for launch in 2012 called Radiation Belt Storm Probes in which four university teams will provide experiments and instruments to study near-Earth space radiation hazardous to astronauts, orbiting satellites and aircraft flying high altitude polar routes.

The teams -- including the UI, Boston University, the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis and the New Jersey Institute of Technology-Newark - first will use $4.2 million to perform a one-year cost, management and technical study prior to assembling and testing their scientific payload for the mission.

The goal of the mission itself is to study how accumulations of space radiation form and change during space storms. According to NASA, space weather storms involve constantly changing magnetic and electric fields and gusts of radiation particles flowing outward from the sun that produce intense energy capable of blacking out long-distance communications and disrupting global navigational systems.

The UI-led team will build a wave experiment to measure electric and magnetic fields and construct a magnetometer. The study is aimed at better understanding the origin of plasma waves that energize space particles to radiation levels and measuring the distortions to Earth's magnetic field that shape Earth's radiation belts, according to Craig Kletzing, professor and UI project principal investigator.

"We're quite pleased to be selected for this major NASA mission," said Kletzing. "The Earth's radiation belts have been an important research topic ever since their discovery by UI Professor James Van Allen. With this mission, we will make new strides in advancing our understanding of the space weather that affects satellites and communications."

UI researchers involved in the project, in addition to Kletzing, are Scott Bounds, project manager, and William Kurth, waves instrument leader. UI partners in its portion of the mission are the University of New Hampshire; Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; the University of California at Los Angeles and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In June, the department won $1.85 million to conduct four projects as part of National Science Foundation and Department of Energy collaboration on basic plasma physics. Researchers from the department's plasma physics group, whose doctoral program was recently ranked sixth-best in the nation among public universities by U.S.News & World Report, will explore four separate research areas: basic research in dusty plasmas, plasma turbulence, magnetic reconnection, and Alfven wave physics.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009, gary-galluzzo@uiowa.edu