NSF to reuse satellites for research

A project funded by the National Science Foundation will use Iridium satellites to study weather patterns in space.

Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory will lead the $4 million project, in partnership with Iridium Satellite and the Boeing Co.

"Earth's space environment can completely reconfigure in as little as 30 minutes,' said Brian Anderson, APL principal investigator for the project. "With this new ability to continually monitor these electric currents, we will be able to track the transformations of our planet's space environment for the first time and thereby gain a new understanding of how Earth reacts to the sun.'

The idea behind the project is to measure the electrical currents in the Earth's atmosphere and in space. Instruments on Iridium's constellation of 66 satellites can detect the electric currents. The NSF grant will be used to develop software that can amplify the detection capabilities a hundredfold. Such heightened sensitivity will allow researchers and meteorologists to closely track supersonic blasts of plasma ejected from the sun, as well as the environmental reactions from such occurrences. Severe blasts could disrupt radio communications and global positioning system readings and damage spacecraft electronics. On earth, they could cause power-grid disruptions.

Data gathered from the project, called the Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment (AMPERE), will also aid in theories and simulations that will help better understand the science of space weather forecasting.

"Presently, we do not have enough satellites making these measurements,' said Anderson. "It's like trying to understand a hurricane with only a few weather stations measuring temperature. AMPERE will give us the first-ever global, real-time picture of what's really happening during these dynamic space-weather storms.'

With its constellation of low-earth orbiting satellites, Iridium provides voice and data services to parts of the globe untouched by cellular phone coverage. Commercially launched in 1998, the global service had initial difficulty attracting subscribers, due to the then-burgeoning and lower-cost cellular telephone industry. After the founding company went bankrupt in 1999, the satellites were purchased by private investors and the resulting company concentrated on markets too remote for cellular coverage. The Defense Department uses the service.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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