Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Augsburg Professors at the Forefront of Space Physics

Professors Mark Engebretson and David Murr are continuing to put the Augsburg Science Department on the map through their extensive research on space physics. Engebretson and Murr are being sponsored by the National Science Foundation and NASA to research the patterns and impacts of weather in space. Their studies have been recognized internationally at world conferences, as well as locally in a recent Star Tribune feature. Engebretson has also had a peak named after him in Antarctica for the research he has contributed in that region and in his field (you can look it up on Wikipedia!).

Engebretson has been interested in space physics since graduate school and had the opportunity to continue his studies when he became a staff member at Augsburg. He met up with Murr while Murr was still in high school as a part of a science-related mentorship program. Murr then came to Augsburg and studied space physics with Engebretson for four additional years until he graduated in 1992. Murr was student body president in his Augsburg years and also a writer for the Echo. After he graduated, he joined the Peace Corps, received his PhD in space physics and after working for the State Department, ended up back at Augsburg to return to his space research with Engebretson.

The field of space physics sounds a bit intimidating, but what Engebretson and Murr really focus on is space weather, that is, patterns of waves of electrons, protons and magnetism from the sun that shoot through space. You can almost think of it as magnetic fronts that originate from the sun and depending on the size, can travel through our solar system and affect the planets.

So why do they study space weather and how does it affect you? The answer is mainly through satellite technology. These surges of radiation from the sun can blow out GPS data for pilots and drivers, it can knock out your satellite TV and radio signals, but most importantly it can affect the power grids of cities in vulnerable locations.

An example of this happened in 1989 when a giant wave of radiation left 130 million people in Quebec without power. The surges can knock out large networks of transformers, if power grids are not strategically networked to try can contain the damage. The surges also pose a significant threat to the navigation systems in planes flying over the poles.

“One of the biggest threats of space weather,” says Engebretson, “is that it’s just going to knock out one of our satellites.” In a society that is becoming increasingly reliant on satellite technology, it is important to know how to protect our investments in space from radiation surges. The study of space weather actually began initially in order to engineer better space instruments.

 “If you’re going to send people to the moon, you have to know something about the environment you’re going to be exposed to,” says Murr.

Because the surges are so powerful and so far impossible to harness, Engebretson and Murr are working to develop more sophisticated ways to predict when and where the surges coming, thus enabling countries to better prepare for imminent danger. They likened their research to hurricane research. “The gulfstream occasionally has hurricanes…and you like to know when the hurricane is coming,” says Engebretson. “Satellite operators like to know when severe weather is coming from the sun [so] they can turn down the voltages and make it less likely that the satellite is going to be damaged.”

The ways that space physics can affect you have to do with the magnetosphere around the Earth.  “Basically the magnetosphere is invisible,” says Engebretson, “so we have to figure out how to study invisible things.” But fortunately for them, there is one way you can observe the magnetic waves: auroras. Auroras are ever-present rings of electrons coming down from outer space and crashing into the earth’s atmosphere. When the electrons collide with the atmosphere they create the ambient colorful light show that most people associate with them.

Engebretson and Murr have received a million dollar grant just to monitor the activity of these auroras through instruments that they have placed in the arctic areas of Northern Canada. Murr and Engebretson actually have the second largest collection of instruments, second to a Japanese researcher, to collect data about these auroras. They also collect data from satellites in space.

Through the culmination of this and other data, Murr and Engebretson have come to the conclusion that space weather, like earth weather, has a cycle. Earth’s weather cycle lasts one year, but the sun’s weather cycle lasts about 11 years to repeat.

“At some rough level,” says Murr, “there’s the seasons of space weather…one’s more active and one’s quieter, but just like [Earth] weather… you’re more likely to have storms during one season than another, but every once and a while you get a freak snow storm in May.”

The two have also been involved with research that looks at sunspots as an indicator of particular kinds of weather. “Sun spots are kind of rough indicator of solar weather. They’re not what drives it,” says Engebretson, but they are the only thing you can see from the ground.

There isn’t as much variation in types of weather in space like there is here with different types of precipitation. The main variations of solar weather pertain to the size of the radiation storm and the location where the storm will affect Earth. Their main goal is to be able to predict with greater precision the magnitude and location of a radiation threat.

Murr noted the technological irony that tends to stifle their progress. “I think one of the interesting things is that you have this 11 year cycle of activity and at the same time you have this increase in technology that’s continuously going on…the fact that it’s eleven years, it’s just long enough that people can forget about it. Each time we get surprised.”

What Murr is saying is that as technology advances and becomes more complex it becomes harder to cover all the areas of vulnerability within our technological world. Every time the most turbulent part of the solar weather cycle peaks, there is new technology that we don’t know how to protect. Murr used the example of how the surge in GPS usage in the past few years that could cause a potential problem during another major radiation surge because the technology was not as wide spread during the last solar cycle.

Engebretson and Murr are on the forefront of their field, but they say that overall, their area of study, given its global nature, is very interactive. They look forward to future international conferences where they share their findings with other countries. But in the long run, Augsburg has served as a nurturing home for their studies. As Engebretson said at the start of our interview, they are not just teachers, they get to be ‘real scientists’ as well.



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