LASP instrument selected for the next NASA ‘Living With a Star’ mission

The spacecraft constellation will make the first global measurements of the coupling between the magnetosphere and the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The results will help detect and predict extreme conditions in space that can impact society and future exploration.

An instrument to be jointly designed and built at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) and the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) has been selected to fly on NASA’s next mission to study Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The instrument, known as the Atmospheric Electrodynamics probe for THERmal plasma (AETHER), will measure electron density and temperature from a constellation of Earth-orbiting satellites as part of NASA’s Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC) mission. These measurements will be vital to GDC’s aim to understand the fundamental processes that govern the dynamic coupling between Earth’s magnetic field and our planet’s upper atmosphere.

“Our team is really excited,” said AETHER Principal Investigator Laila Andersson, a space plasma researcher at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at CU Boulder. “This instrument will be used to support the mission’s overarching goal, which is to study how the upper atmosphere (ionosphere-thermosphere system) responds to energy inputs and drives global redistribution of mass, momentum, and energy.” According to Andersson, GDC will help develop the knowledge and capability to detect and predict extreme conditions in space in order to protect life and society—and to safeguard human and robotic activities at and beyond Earth.

Studying the highly connected Sun-Earth system

As a multi-spacecraft constellation, GDC will provide a platform for the coordinated and simultaneous measurements of both neutral gas and plasma needed to advance scientific understanding of the Earth’s coupled ionosphere-thermosphere system on a global scale. The mission, which is part of NASA’s Living With a Star program, will be a key step towards understanding the basic chemistry and physics of Earth’s upper atmosphere and its interaction with the magnetosphere. The mission will also give scientists new insights into space weather processes.

“The coupled system between the magnetosphere and Earth’s upper atmosphere is crucial to predict satellite drag and distortions of signals (such as GPS) through the ionosphere,” said Andersson. “With this mission, we’ll be able to get a better understanding of this system on a global scale.”

The atmosphere is a vital part of the vast and highly connected Sun-Earth system, and the part closest to home, according to LASP Director Dan Baker. “The measurements that AETHER will be making will be key to furthering our scientific understanding and will continue LASP’s long record of observing Earth’s atmosphere,” said Baker, who is a collaborator on the instrument team. “With this work, we expect to have critical ‘dual use’ capability that includes both basic science research and forefront space-weather capabilities,” he added. “We are proud to be selected as participants in this next major NASA heliophysics project.”

Students play a major role in all research activities at LASP, including this mission. “We will have undergraduate and graduate students involved in this project, and through the course of the mission, they will be working on everything from instrument testing and software development to data acquisition and analysis,” said Andersson.

Drawing on heritage

The AETHER team was one of three instrument investigation teams selected by NASA to join GDC’s science team. Five others are still under consideration.

AETHER draws on the heritage from two previous instrument designs: the Langmuir Probe and Waves instrument on the NASA Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission and the FIELDS Instrument Suite on the NASA Parker Solar Probe mission.

In addition to Andersson, the AETHER team will include Deputy Principal Investigator Stuart Bale, a physics professor at the Space Sciences Lab (SSL) at UCB, and Instrument Scientist Bob Ergun. He is a LASP research scientist and professor in the CU Boulder Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS) Department.

“The proposal effort was very impressive,” said Bale. “I think we have a terrific instrument concept and team; this mission is going to be fun!”

Other U.S partners on AETHER include the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) and West Virginia University (WVU). European partners include the Swedish Institute of Space Physics (IRF-U) Sweden, the EISCAT Scientific Association in Sweden, and LESIA-Observatory of Paris, France.

Additional co-investigators include CU/APS Assistant Professor David Malaspina; LASP researchers Naomi Maruyama and Xu Wang; SSL/UCB researchers Trevor Bowen and Marc Pulupa; researcher Christopher Fowler from WVU; and Assistant Professor Frederick Wilder from UTA. International collaborators include Anders Eriksson from IRF-U in Sweden; Ingemar Häggström from EISCAT; and Karine Issautier and Arnaud Zaslavsky from LESIA.

Written by Terri Cook – Head of LASP’s Office of Communication Management

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