APL craft to study effects of sun storms

Project to bring 100 jobs, $200 million to Hopkins

January 24, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab will build and operate two pairs of NASA spacecraft to study the sometimes damaging and dangerous effects of solar storms.

APL officials said yesterday that the two missions would bring about $200 million to the laboratory near Laurel over the next decade. They will add as many as 100 jobs at APL and support 1,000 more among contractors and suppliers in the region.

Another $200 million will be spent elsewhere to provide launch vehicles and scientific instruments for the four spacecraft.

Both missions will be managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

"This is the kind of thing Congress likes to fund, because it tells us what we should explore scientifically and what we need to know to protect our critical assets right here on Earth," said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who announced the projects yesterday.

The first pair of spacecraft, scheduled for launch in 2008, will measure the effects of geomagnetic storms on the Earth's upper atmosphere, from 53 to 620 miles up. The Ionospheric/Thermospheric Mapper, as the mission is called, will remain aloft three years.

The second mission will put another pair of craft in space in 2010 for a two-year study of the effect of solar activity on the Earth's radiation belts - two regions of atomic particles trapped by the Earth's magnetic field. These twin probes are referred to collectively as the Radiation Belt Mapper.

Violent solar storms periodically spew radiation and gales of atomic particles toward Earth. These "geomagnetic storms" have disrupted long-distance radio transmissions and can damage or destroy commercial and military communications satellites. They can also threaten orbiting astronauts and airline passengers and crews flying on high-altitude polar routes. And some solar storms have triggered outages on electrical power grids on the ground.

"This is a critical, must-do area for research," said Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the congressional subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget.

Stamatios M. Krimigis, head of APL's space department, said the missions are the first elements in a coordinated effort to explore sun-Earth connections.

Weather forecasters routinely take data from a variety of instruments around the globe, from weather balloons, ocean buoys and spacecraft to inform their forecasts.

"I would predict that 10 or 15 years from now ... you will get two kinds of forecasts on your typical weather part of the news - what the space weather is and what Earth weather is," Krimigis said.

Such forecasts are already sought by power grid managers and satellite operators, who need time to protect hardware when a solar storm is brewing. Krimigis recalled a 1998 incident in which 90 percent of the pager users in the United States lost service when a communications satellite was knocked out by a geomagnetic storm.

"As our technology moves farther and farther into space, these kinds of incidents could become much more common," he said. "A predictive capability could forestall that."

Early warning data on approaching solar blasts now comes from a 5-year-old, APL-built spacecraft called ACE, for Advanced Composition Explorer. Krimigis said ACE provides about 50 minutes' warning. But it has only rudimentary instrumentation and is managed "on a shoestring."

After the APL spacecraft gather the data needed to develop a model of the sun's impact on Earth's environment, Krimigis said, scientists will use that knowledge to design and launch a second generation of "sentinel" spacecraft to provide a permanent warning system.

The two new APL missions are the second and third to be funded under NASA's Living with a Star program. The first is the Solar Dynamics Observatory, being built by Goddard for launch in 2007.

APL is in line to build additional, unspecified spacecraft under a 12-year, $600 million NASA contract announced in July 2001. That figure includes the $200 million to be spent at APL for the two missions announced yesterday.

Krimigis said the Living with a Star program has been fully funded by Congress in recent years. But continued funding "is a yearly process, and everything is subject to that," he said.

Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory employs 3,350 full-time employees, with an annual budget of about $540 million. Its principal client is the U.S. military, which accounts for about two-thirds of APL's budget, mostly in communications systems research and development.

Space science, mostly for NASA, accounts for about a quarter of the lab's work.

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