Embry-Riddle Researchers Awarded Nearly $2 Million in NASA, NSF Grants
Embry-Riddle researchers, led by Katariina Nykyri, have been awarded a total of $1.48 million in grants from NASA ($992,000) and the National Science Foundation (NSF: $485,000) to study space phenomena that can harm technological systems and even threaten human health.
"These substantial grants are a testament to the strength of Dr. Nykyri's research," said Peter Hoffmann, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. " Katariina is a key leader in our internationally recognized efforts in space and atmospheric research, and this research will not only address important questions in better understanding space weather but also support the training of a new generation of students who will be experts in space phenomena — expertise that will be critical for the success of expanding human space activities."
In addition to the $1.48 million awarded to Nykyri is a separate $452,000 NSF grant — which was awarded to Dr. Shiva Kavosi, a co-investigator on Nykyri's grants and a research associate in Embry-Riddle’s Center for Space and Atmospheric Research — for research in a similar scientific area.
Nykyri's NASA grant, funded at $992,000 by the space agency’s Living With a Star program, will support the study of solar wind on the Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere in order to develop strategies to predict space weather that can be damaging and disruptive. Nykyri pointed out that about 40 of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites were destroyed at the beginning of 2022 because of a geomagnetic storm.
“As seen in the destruction of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, adverse space weather conditions are a major challenge for our technological society — for example, the safety of satellites, power delivery networks and national security,” said Nykyri, professor in the Department of Physical Sciences.
Nykyri also said that a better understanding of space weather could be vital to the recently selected group of astronauts who will visit the Moon.
“The moon and Lunar Gateway are exposed to different and highly variable space weather conditions and radiation when the moon is in the solar wind and in the Earth’s magnetotail [the elongated "tail" of the Earth's magnetosphere on the side away from the sun]. This research will help assess and predict that radiation environment,” she said.
Kavosi and Dr. Xuanye Ma, also with the Center for Space and Atmospheric Research, are co-investigators for the project, together with Dr. Jay Johnson from Andrews University and Simon Wing from Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory. The NASA grant also supports the work of two Embry-Riddle doctoral students, Yulun Liou and Luke Francis.
Liou said he sees the research as crucial.
“The more I understand about space, the more I feel like we are like pioneers, paving the way for the rise of the space age of the future,” he said. “Our research on solar wind-magnetospheric dynamics can help make things more predictable and reliable when planning a space project. Also, the impacts from outside the Earth don’t seem that close to our day-to-day lives, but they are definitely cataclysmic for all life. The Earth’s magnetosphere is like the fresh air — we are not aware of its existence, but we can’t survive without it.”
Francis will be assessing how different solar wind fluctuations might provoke the onset of geomagnetic substorms, which are electrical storms in space, generated when magnetic energy stored in Earth's stretched magnetotail on the side away from the sun suddenly releases and is converted into kinetic energy of plasma particles, which results in the Aurora Borealis in the Northern Hemisphere and Aurora Australis in the Southern Hemisphere.
“As we enter into the new space race (and with the equipment we are sending up, such as unfathomably tiny transistors), it'll become that much more important to understand and possibly predict geo-effective solar activity even if there is not a full-on energy grid-endangering magnetic storm,” Francis said. “In the past, it was thought that the flipping of the interplanetary magnetic field outside of Earth's field was a good indicator. Later papers found this to be coincidental through statistical analysis, but now there may be even more parameters that, when combined, could actually work and better explain the onset of unusual substorms. Essentially, I have to do some investigation for what these conditions are and if they do act as a reliable indicator for prediction.”
Particle Acceleration in Space
Nykyri's NSF grant of $485,000 supports research aimed at understanding the physics of particle acceleration in space — work that she referred to as “one of the major topics in space physics.”
“These particles can be harmful to technological systems and the health of astronauts and even airplane passengers,” Nykyri said.
Previous research by Nykyri and her team discovered new regions at the edges of the Earth’s magnetosphere called diamagnetic cavities that can accelerate the high-energy and potentially dangerous particles. The current research will combine the use of Magnetospheric Multiscale spacecraft data, numerical simulations and laboratory plasma experiments conducted in a device called Big Red Ball at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to nail down the detailed physics responsible for this particle acceleration. The laboratory experiment will also help in testing and designing new magnetic field configurations for achieving sustained high temperatures in laboratory plasmas, which is a necessary step toward achieving fusion energy.
Co-investigators for the project are professor Jan Egedal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with Ma and Kavosi from Embry-Riddle. Nykyri is also seeking a Ph.D. student with a master's degree in Physics, Space Physics or Engineering Physics to work on the project for the next three years.
Studying Magnetic Tilt
Kavosi's $452,000 NSF grant is intended to study the effects of the Earth's magnetic tilt on huge Kelvin-Helmholtz waves that occur when wind from the sun pushes energy and mass toward the planet’s magnetic shield. Unable to pass through the Earth’s magnetic shield, the wind whips along the magnetosphere, propelling the Kelvin-Helmholtz waves. The project will also investigate the effects of the Earth's magnetic tilt on associated magnetic disturbances on the Earth's surface.
"This research will lead to a significant improvement in our understanding of Kelvin-Helmholtz instability in plasma physics," said Kavosi, who is a research associate at the Center for Space and Atmospheric Research. "Furthermore, it will offer valuable insights into the significance of sun-Earth geometry in the coupling of solar wind, the magnetosphere and the ionosphere, thereby contributing to the understanding of space weather."
The research could improve space weather prediction, helping to safeguard satellite navigation and communications and such infrastructure on Earth as electrical power grids. It is a collaborative project with Virginia Tech and the Space Science Institute.
The work follows other research that Kavosi, Nykyri and colleagues published in Nature Communications in May.
The researchers will combine theory, as well as in-situ data from THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms), MMS (Magnetospheric Multiscale) spacecraft missions, ground magnetometers, SuperDARN (Super Dual Auroral Radar Network), and the OpenGGCM (Open Geospace General Circulation Model).