In the course of today’s activities, you might send a text message, pay for your gasoline purchase at the pump or use a GPS system. You’ll likely depend on an Internet connection, electricity supplied by a power grid, natural gas from a pipeline and products delivered by long-haul trucks, trains, ships or planes. All of these activities are dependent on satellites, which makes all of them vulnerable to unpredictable forces miles beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
“Explosions on the Sun can have a big impact here on Earth, by disrupting radio signals, GPS, satellites and even the International Space Station,” says Utah State University researcher Ivana Molina. “We’re working to get a better understanding of how these solar storms affect our upper atmosphere, so we can eventually forecast these disturbances.”
Molina, a doctoral student in USU’s Department of Physics, is one of nine scholars selected nationally for a 2017 NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship in heliophysics research. The three-year fellowship provides up to $45,000 per year to cover tuition, fees, student expenses and travel.
“This is a prestigious honor for Ivana, our Physics Department and for Utah State,” says Maura Hagan, USU College of Science dean. “I anticipate that Ivana’s investigation will elucidate important underlying physics governing our atmosphere’s response to extreme space weather conditions.”
With Physics faculty mentor Ludger Scherliess, Molina is using a new data assimilation model, developed by USU alum Levan Lomidze PhD’15. While Lomidze used the model to examine “quiet” periods of low solar activity, Molina will use it to study the dynamics of the upper atmosphere during solar storms.
“We are especially interested in the dramatic changes in the wind system during these storms,” she says.
“Typically, we don’t notice the effects of space weather directly here on the ground, but in the upper atmosphere it can be like a hurricane,” says Scherliess, associate professor in USU’s Department of Physics. “Yet these storms can cause major difficulties in applications that require precision positioning, such as aircraft navigation, oil and gas drilling and satellites.”
Molina, who started graduate study at USU in 2014, became interested in studying the upper atmosphere as an undergraduate student at the National University of La Plata in her homeland of Argentina. She met USU scientists and learned of Utah State’s prowess in space weather research at a 2010 conference in San Juan, Argentina.