Earl Scime, Oleg D. Jefimenko Professor of Physics and interim vice president of research at West Virginia University, is researching the effects of space weather in order to ultimately protect Earth’s technology.
Scime is using a $590,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study double layers, structures composed of strong electric fields, found within plasma, capable of accelerating particles to high speeds. He is looking specifically at how these structures form, and what keeps them around in space.
It’s a small part of a bigger picture. Scime hopes to be able to model what is happening in space, in his lab, to be able to determine what exactly happens during powerful space storms.
On Sept. 11, a strong solar flare launched off of the sun, launching a massive burst of electrified gas into space. This is known as a coronal mass ejection. This burst and others like it continue to threaten technology on Earth and have been an area of interest for years at NASA.
The results of his studies could be used in sophisticated models of the space environment that would allow researchers to be able to predict whether or not a solar event will lead to harmful space weather. With advance warning, critical power, telecommunication and other systems on Earth could be protected during a space weather storm.
“When we have large space weather events you can have power distribution systems fail, oil pipelines fail, spacecraft get knocked out permanently. Your standard communications satellite costs a couple-hundred million to a half a billion dollars. When those fail it can shut down long distance telephone communication for an entire country,” Scime said.
Scime specializes in space-relevant plasma physics and has recently also received $720,000 in funding from NASA for a project to build a micro-sized space instrument that will go into space and measure speed and density of particles in space, a whole new area of research at WVU.
“We hope to have our first prototypes ready by the end of next summer for testing. These are going to be space instruments the size of a sugar cube, but with the capabilities of instruments that, up to now, have been much larger,” Scime said.