Final frontier is U’s new baby

Jake Kapsner

NASA signaled lift-off to the University on Sept. 11 for a five-year, $13 million space mission to study the earth’s magnetosphere.
Called the Inner Magnetosphere Explorer, the project entails building and deploying a satellite in 2001 to study the forces at work within electrical and magnetic fields surrounding Earth.
These forces dramatically affect particles released from the sun. The interaction generates visually arousing auroras but also poses danger to astronauts, spacecraft and satellite communications.
The research is unique because the University will conduct the entire project from start to finish with little NASA involvement, said the project’s principle investigator John Wygant, assistant professor of physics.
The University proposal — along with another from the University of California-Berkeley — was selected from a pool of 29 applicants as part of NASA’s new University-class Explorers program.
The NASA program aims to conduct frequent scientific missions for less money while involving students, said Louis Kaluziemski, program scientist. “It’s sort of the faster, better, cheaper approach,” he said.
“The program is designed around the idea that … you can have a small, focused team of people that define the entire mission, as opposed to involving all of NASA,” Wygant said.
The University leads a team of researchers from different institutions working on different parts of the project. Minnesota scientists will build the satellite’s central instrument and control computer. The University of Colorado will build the spacecraft and other institutions will build additional scientific instruments.
Similar missions have cost NASA more than $200 million in the past, said project manager Keith Goetz, a University physicist.
The researchers said a tight budget will necessitate creative designs, and that they’ve already found cheaper ways to blast off.
Although the cheapest launch vessel can cost $10 million, the satellite will hop a ride into orbit on an Air Force Titan IV rocket for about $1 million, Goetz said.
A speedily approaching launch date means numerous University students will help the four University physicists develop the research project, Wygant said.
The 2001 launch date coincides with the peak of an 11-year solar cycle, a time when the sun emits maximum solar wind and intensely affects the Earth’s magnetic fields.
Such increased activity in the Van Allen radiation belts — the inner most portion of the Earth’s magnetosphere — should give dramatic results.
The magnetosphere is where the Earth’s magnetic field controls the motion of charged particles.
“The particles aren’t nearly as energetic when they leave the sun as when they enter the Van Allen belts, and that’s what we’re studying,” Wygant said.
The University project is part of a larger, ongoing effort to understand how interactions between solar particles and the magnetosphere cause malfunctions in advanced electrical instruments like satellites and high-flying airplanes.
The researchers will study plasma activity in the radiation belts, something that occurs throughout the universe in pulsars, supernovas and near stars. Goetz said galactic distances prevent a direct physical study of plasma, a gas made of charged particles.
“We can stick our spacecraft right in the middle of it, because it’s close to the Earth,” Wygant said, “and can study the actual processes which energize these particles.”
Plasma, such as candle flame, is considered the fourth state of matter and thought to comprise 99 percent of the universe, Goetz said.
This is the first time a spacecraft will be able to study what’s happening within the belts, he said.