Professor Jeff Thayer is part of a major new NASA science mission to better understand how our sun influences the generation of space weather.
Thayer is one of three interdisciplinary scientists chosen by NASA for the Geospatial Dynamics Constellation (GDC) to build and launch six satellites to provide the world’s first direct measurements of our planet’s atmospheric interface with the space environment and how it responds to energy from the sun.
“The space-atmosphere interaction region is where the sun’s directed energy is deposited and where satellites orbit,” Thayer said. “Space weather generated by solar energy deposition disrupts these satellite systems, causing drag and radio frequency communication issues. We need to understand the processes responsible for space weather and provide predictive capabilities to space operators.”
Thayer is faculty director of the Space Weather Technology, Research and Education Center (SWx TREC), a Grand Challenge initiative at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is also the Joseph T. Negler Professor in the Ann and HJ Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. He is a leading researcher in remote sensing of the atmosphere and ionosphere and an expert in geophysical fluid dynamics and electrodynamic processes.
The GDC mission will be a constellation of six satellites flying in formation. Using an array of sensors on each spacecraft, it will explore the fundamental physics of the ionosphere-thermosphere region, which extends 80 to 600 kilometers (50 to 375 miles) above Earth.
The level of detail and resolution provided by the mission will provide an unprecedented understanding of how our planet’s space environment responds to energy from the sun and how it redistributes that energy internally on a global scale. The science results from the mission will ultimately improve our ability to understand and predict space weather that affects our technology and society.
“The upper atmosphere has a lot of different ways of handling energy from the sun,” Thayer said. “It can transform solar energy into heat, momentum, chemical reactions and other forms of energy. This region serves as an atmospheric shield to the lower world against the extreme energies generated by the sun. This mission explores how solar energy is transformed and how the upper atmosphere reacts. We know that certain processes are taking place, but we need to know how it all works as a system. »
A six-satellite mission is a colossal undertaking. It is estimated that the design and construction of the project will take seven years, followed by three years of scientific operations. Thayer is brought to ground level to shape mission design, requirements and satellite specifications.
The project follows previous successful NASA missions, including the Parker Solar Probe, which orbits the sun, and the Multiscale Magnetospheric Mission (MMS).
“We follow the energy of the sun,” Thayer said. “Parker studies the process of generating solar energy. MMS is analyzing how the sun’s energy is captured by the Earth’s magnetosphere, which spans thousands of miles, and now GDC will study how that energy is dissipated.
NASA also selected Dr. Rebecca Bishop of the Aerospace Corporation and Professor Yue Deng of the University of Texas at Arlington as the mission’s interdisciplinary scientists.
Thayer’s team at CU Boulder includes Dr. Eric Sutton, senior research associate at SWx TREC, and three engineers from the Atmospheric and Space Physics Laboratory: Dr. Katelynn Greer, Dr. Greg Lucas and Dr. Marcin Pilinski.