Analyzing gravity waves at the edge of space

Studying space weather from the space station.


Jeffrey Forbes, a professor emeritus and research professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, who is serving as deputy principal investigator for the project, is working on a project scheduled for the International Space Station (ISS) to enable us to more readily comprehend and figure conditions on the edge of space.

NASA has selected a new mission that will help scientists understand and, ultimately, forecast the vast space weather system around our planet.

The Atmospheric Waves Experiment (AWE) mission will acquire global observations of a significant driver of space weather in a dynamic region of Earth‘s upper atmosphere that can obstruct radio and GPS communications.

From its space station perch, AWE will focus on colorful bands of light in Earth’s atmosphere, called airglow, to determine what combination of forces drive space weather in the upper atmosphere.

Forbes said, “A lot of energy and momentum from ground weather – thunderstorms, hurricanes, etc. – gets transferred up to this area. It’s the intersection of space weather and Earth weather. On the ground, you can only take measurements on cloudless nights and only within the small area of the sky directly above the equipment. Looking down from ISS, in four days, we can paint a picture of 85 percent of the globe.”

Once launched, the AWE equipment will allow for the creation of a global map of gravity wave characteristics and how those waves correspond to ground-based sources like tropical storms and convection. These observations dovetail with other NASA missions such as the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, or GOLD, which launched in January 2018, and the upcoming Ionospheric Explorer – both of which seek to unravel different aspects of how terrestrial weather and space weather interact.

Funded by NASA, the mission is planned to launch on August 2022. The team will be conducting research with the data it collects, but they will not be the only ones with access – all of the information will be open for analysis by the worldwide scientific community.

Forbes said, “All data will be publicly available within a few months of collection on a NASA database. Our job is to produce the science we’re interested in, to understand these waves and their role, but we’re not doing all of the science. Others will be able to use it for their research as well.”

The lead organization for the project is Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory, where the technology was first developed for ground-based use by AWE Principal Investigator, Physics Professor Michael Taylor of USU’s Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences. Taylor, Forbes, and their teams are now working to adapt it for operations in space.

In addition to Utah State University, the Space Dynamics Laboratory and CU Boulder, the project involves the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, GATS Inc., Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.


See stories of the future in your inbox each morning.