How's the Weather in Space?

UNH researchers design instrumentation to help forecast space weather

Monday, November 21, 2016
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NASA rocket with UNH-built instruments on board

UNH-built space weather detection instruments launched into space on this NASA rocket on Nov. 19.

NASA rocket with UNH-built instrument
Rocket with instruments designed by UNH researchers blasted into space Nov. 19 (Photo: NASA)

State-of-the-art space weather instrumentation developed by researchers at the UNH’s Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS) blasted into space Saturday, Nov. 19, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The technology is part of a suite of weather instruments created for the new leading-edge National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather satellite, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R, or GOES-R.

GOES-R, NOAA’s biggest satellite advancement to date, will provide National Weather Service forecasters the meteorological equivalent of going from black and white to ultra-high-definition color TV. The instrumentation developed at the Space Science Center, within EOS, will help forecast what’s known as space weather, conditions on the sun and in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that can endanger communications, GPS satellites, commercial aircraft and astronauts.

Researchers at UNH were contracted to design, build and calibrate the energetic heavy ion sensor (EHIS), part of a suite of four space weather instruments called the space environmental in-situ suite (SEISS). The sensor will allow scientists to monitor during long periods the level of energetic ions, from protons to nickel, that populate the near-Earth space environment. These ions are the main cause of radiation damage in space to both electronic and biological systems.

“An increased heavy ion environment near Earth, which signals higher radiation risk, can affect something as basic as airline altitude,” said Clifford Lopate, research associate professor of physics and principal investigator on the project. “Being able to forecast a higher radiation risk for so-called ‘polar’ planes that tend to fly at higher altitudes near the Earth’s poles would allow airlines to warn pilots and reroute planes to lower altitudes to decrease the risk of long-term exposure to radiation for their crews, who fly the same route over and over again.”

​ Energetic Heavy Ion Sensor (EHIS); space weather instrument designed built and calibrated the University of New Hampshire for the GOES-R weather satellite.

Energetic heavy ion sensor (EHIS) space weather instrument designed, built and calibrated at the University of New Hampshire for the GOES-R weather satellite

Like the rest of the universe, the large majority of positively charged particles in space are protons, followed by helium, then the heavier elements. Monitoring these particles has become an integral part of the NOAA space weather program that tracks and forecasts changes in the environmental conditions in space around the Earth. The EHIS is the first UNH-designed instrument to be included in an operational satellite payload. The team of engineers, led by Lopate and James Connell, an associate professor of physics at UNH and the Space Science Center, constructed the sensor to specifically measure atomic nuclei in space from helium, through the more massive carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, and the very massive iron and nickel.

GOES-R’s advanced imagery and higher resolution will enable improvements to NOAA’s hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts, as well as the forecasting of severe weather including tornadoes, thunderstorms and flooding. In addition, GOES-R’s space weather sensors will improve NOAA’s ability to monitor the sun and forecast space weather, including the detection of radiation hazards. GOES-R can deliver vivid images of severe weather as often as every 30 seconds, scanning the Earth five times faster, with four times greater image resolution and using triple the number of spectral channels compared with today’s other GOES spacecraft. 

Interested in studying space science at UNH? Visit UNH Physics.

  • Written By

    Robbin Ray | Communications and Public Affairs
Contributors: 
Beth Potier | Communications and Public Affairs | beth.potier@unh.edu | 2-1566