Science & Technology

Awestruck Science: USU Physicist Leads NASA-funded ISS Project

Physicists, l-r, Yucheng Zhao, Mike Taylor, Pattilyn McLaughlin, Jon Pugmire, Kenneth Zia and Mike Negale, hold an imager used to map gravity waves from Earth-bound sites. Taylor leads a NASA-funded study to develop an imager to fly on the ISS.

For more than three decades, Utah State University physicist Mike Taylor has traveled to the ends of the Earth to observe and capture images of upper atmospheric gravity waves.

Taylor, along with colleagues and students, has taken custom-built, temperature-mapping imaging cameras to Hawaii, Chile, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Alaska, New Zealand and the South Pole to collect images of the waves, which occur some 50 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Now, with initial funding from NASA, he and his team have the opportunity to design an advanced infrared camera to fly on the International Space Station and map the waves from beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

“It’s the culmination of many years of work and determination, but the excitement is just beginning,” says Taylor, professor in USU’s Department of Physics and researcher in the university’s Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences. “With this new grant, we’re aiming to design a camera that can capture images of waves from space enabling near-global measurements.”

Taylor is the principal investigator of a NASA Explorers Program Missions of Opportunity Small Complete Missions grant to USU’s Space Dynamics Laboratory to develop the Atmospheric Waves Experiment (AWE) project. Taylor, together with SDL colleagues; USU co-investigators Jeff Forbes, adjunct professor; Science Dean and Physics Professor Maura Hagan; research scientists Dominique Pautet and Yucheng Zhao, and  graduate students, will conduct a detailed “Phase A” concept study to develop the design for an advanced infrared temperature mapper to fly on the International Space Station.

Additional research investigators on the project include Dave Fritts of Colorado’s GATS, Inc.; Diego Janches, Goddard Space Flight Center; Steve Eckermann, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory; Hanli Liu, National Atmospheric Research Laboratory and USU alum Jonathan Snively of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

One of nine proposals selected under the Explorers Program, including SDL’s Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment “SunRISE” project, the initial 11-month AWE project “gives us the opportunity to demonstrate our plan is feasible and can be completed within budget,” Taylor says.

“If we are successful, this will lead to full instrument development and on-orbit measurements from the ISS starting around 2021,” he says. “Our research goal with the planned imager is to quantify the impact and seasonal variability of atmospheric gravity waves, including those generated by weather disturbances, on the global transport of energy and momentum from the lower atmosphere into near-Earth space.”

Taylor says researchers have developed models to simulate the larger-scale waves, but direct observations are needed to paint an accurate picture of how all of these waves affect Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’re learning more and more about the connections of weather throughout the Earth’s atmosphere and how the whole atmosphere – lower and upper regions – work together,” he says. “The impacts of these waves on space vehicle reentries has already been reported.

As space travel grows, understanding the upper atmosphere will become increasingly important, Taylor says.

“One day, flying commercial space vehicles through the upper atmosphere and the edge of space will be as common as today’s commercial airliners,” he says. “We need to be prepared to navigate upper atmospheric weather.”

Related Links
“Catching Waves: USU Grad Student Studies Mesosphere from South Pole,” Utah State Today 
Waaaay Downunder: USU Physicists Travel to South Pole," Utah State Today 
USU Department of Physics 
USU College of Science 

Contact: Mike Taylor, 435-797-3919,
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

USU Physics Professor Mike Taylor is principal investigator on a NASA-funded project to develop an advanced infrared camera to fly on the International Space Station and map the waves from beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Courtesy NASA.


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