NMSU graduate student receives NASA fellowship

Weather doesn’t end when you leave Earth. With NASA’s help, researchers at New Mexico State University are studying the sun in hopes of forecasting space weather as accurately as your local weatherman.

MacDonald and McAteer looking at a computer model of the sun. MacDonald is pointing to the computer.
NMSU astronomy graduate student Gordon MacDonald, recipient of the prestigious NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, discusses a computer model to predict solar storms with NMSU astronomy professor James McAteer. (NMSU photo by Minerva Baumann)
Gordon MacDonald, a graduate student in the astronomy department in NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, is working to better understand space weather prediction with the help of a three-year NASA Earth and Space Science fellowship that provides $30,000 per year for MacDonald’s doctoral research.

“What my dream has always been is to provide government agencies and the general public with space weather advisories — reliable ones,” MacDonald said. “Just the same way as you get your 7-day advance weather forecast here, on the ground, I would like to be able to do that in space, so that commercial interests that are invested in space can thrive.”

MacDonald’s focus: the sun. The sun is by no means stagnant; it is composed of super-heated gas, or plasma, that is occasionally ejected from the sun’s outer atmosphere in events called Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). These charged particles, which move through the solar system at millions of miles per hour, can disturb the Earth’s magnetic field, causing harm to humans and technology in orbit.

“What I’m trying to do is predict the arrival time of CMEs,” MacDonald said. “They bring with them huge clouds of plasma and radiation to Earth, which can be harmful for any vehicle or person that’s in space. What I’m trying to do is reduce the error window of the arrival times of those Coronal Mass Ejections from days to less than 8 hours — less than a work shift.”

For this project, MacDonald is working in collaboration with James McAteer, assistant professor of astronomy and principal investigator with NMSU’s Solar Physics and Space Weather Research Group, as well as Nick Arge and Carl Henney of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

While the science of space weather prediction may be in its early stages, solar storms are nothing new: In March 1989, a moderate space weather event caused a power outage in Quebec and the Northeastern United States, costing power companies millions of dollars, and leaving tens of millions of customers without power for up to nine hours, McAteer said.

As communications systems become almost entirely reliant on earth-orbiting satellites, and the commercial space flight boom continues, there is a mounting need for more accurate space weather predictions.

For the first year of his research, MacDonald will validate a new model for prediction, developed by Arge and Henney and other collaborators.

“One of the things that we know about the sun is that we don’t know that much about it,” McAteer said. “So what Gordon’s project is going to do, is it’s going to say ‘here’s this new model. Now how right is this new model; how correct is it?’ It really is a study in accuracy — a study of how good is good, and how right is right.”

MacDonald will make predictions for what the solar magnetic field looks like, and then validate those predictions to see how much this new model will improve space weather forecasting.

MacDonald and his team intend to collect data through computerized models of the sun and heliosphere. From there, they will monitor the magnetic field in the solar photosphere, or visible surface of the sun, and, over three years of research, derive the coronal magnetic field. This data will lead to a model of the background solar wind from the sun, which will allow for predictions of solar storm arrival times on Earth.

“We’re using far-side helioseismic imaging, which is imaging through vibrations in the sun. Far-side helioseismic imaging gives space weather forecasters a good idea of what the magnetic field looks like on the invisible far-side of the sun,” MacDonald said. “It allows us to better predict the magnetic field of the sun, which impacts space weather, so it’ll give us better space weather forecasts.”

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