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UTA physicists are analyzing space weather effects to improve satellite tracking systems

December 15, 2015

Researchers at The University of Texas at Arlington are analyzing the energy entering the upper atmosphere following space weather events like solar flares to help refine the models used to forecast and track satellite trajectories.

Current estimates of the energy entering the upper atmosphere during times of greatest solar output can be off by as much as 100 percent. As a result, the models used to forecast trajectories and track the satellites orbiting in that region can also yield an error of up to 30 percent, depending on the different space environment conditions.

Yue Deng, UTA associate professor of physics, is principal investigator on a new $378,350 grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to model the energy entering the polar cap regions of the upper atmosphere from the magnetosphere, or Earth's magnetic field, following different space weather events.

"This is the first research project focused on the interaction of different energy inputs in the polar cap boundary regions, which are narrow and bring a substantial amount of energy into the upper atmosphere from the magnetosphere," Deng said. "By analyzing the correlation of electromagnetic energy and high-energy particle precipitation, we will improve our knowledge of the coupling of the upper atmosphere and magnetosphere in terms of energy."

During the research, Defense Meteorological Satellite Program measurements of electric and magnetic fields will be processed to define the intensity and distribution of energy at the cusp of the upper atmosphere during both quiet and storm periods. Data will also be taken from a small German satellite known as the Challenging Mini-satellite Payload or CHAMP.

These results will be compared with the simulations developed in Deng's physics-based 3-D Global Ionosphere-Thermosphere Model, which uses advanced computing to model energy redistributions in the upper atmosphere. The results will demonstrate the effectiveness of the GITM to predict behavior following spikes of energy related to space weather events like solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

"As use of GPS has accelerated, we are all more dependent on satellites for our communications," said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth. "Researchers like UTA's Dr. Deng are performing critical work that will help us develop better systems to track satellites and project their trajectories, ensuring the stability of our communications systems."

Deng's research builds on two prior NASA grants totaling almost $1,000,000 that she won in 2013 and 2014 to study space weather effects using the Global Ionosphere-Thermosphere Model. One grant focuses on how energy from solar winds enters and moves around the upper atmosphere, while the other looks at how events affect vertical winds in the upper atmosphere. Both investigations are currently ongoing.

Deng started to develop the Global Ionosphere-Thermosphere Model while a graduate student at the University of Michigan. The model differs from earlier systems in that it includes more processes, permitting a better understanding of upper atmosphere circulation, especially in regard to conductivity.

Alex Weiss, chair of UTA's physics department, said "Dr. Deng's investigations will help to answer critical outstanding questions relating to energy distribution in the upper atmosphere during geomagnetic storms. It is vital to understand how these bursts of energy affect satellite communications so that appropriate measures can be taken to safeguard our national security interests and protect our society."

Deng joined the UTA College of Science in 2009. In 2010 she received a National Science Foundation Early Career Development Program grant, known as a CAREER grant, given to outstanding junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars. The award brought in $462,000 over five years.

Deng graduated from Peking University with a bachelor's and master's degree in space physics before moving to the United States to earn doctorate in space science at the University of Michigan.

Dolores Knipp, visiting professor at the department of aerospace engineering of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Yanshi Huang, research assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering of the University of New Mexico, are collaborators on the project.
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About The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution of more than 51,000 students in campus-based and online degree programs and is the second-largest institution in The University of Texas System. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked UT Arlington as one of the 20 fastest-growing public research universities in the nation in 2014. U.S. News & World Report ranks UT Arlington fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. The University is a Hispanic-Serving Institution and is ranked as a "Best for Vets" college by Military Times magazine. Visit http://www.uta.edu to learn more, and find UT Arlington rankings and recognition at http://www.uta.edu/uta/about/rankings.php.

University of Texas at Arlington

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