Edition 2015

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Solar storms

By Minerva Baumann

NMSU professor receives NSF CAREER award to study space weather

Damage estimates for the next major solar storm to impact Earth will not be measured in millions or even billions of dollars. New Mexico State University Professor James McAteer described the damage as being measured in “Katrinas,” as in Hurricane Katrina. 

“These are once in 100 years type storms,” McAteer said. “When Katrina came, it did a lot of damage. When a big solar storm arrives, they’ll measure it in units of Katrina dollars. They’ll measure it as between 30 and 50 Katrinas hitting worldwide at one time.”

McAteer, an assistant professor of astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences, will receive a $750,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award over the next five years to study our sun in an effort to predict that next big solar storm before its effects reach the Earth.

“When these large storms go off on the sun, it can affect the Earth in many adverse ways: It can knock out communication satellites; it can interrupt power grids; it can interfere with oil pipelines,” McAteer said. “So one of the things we want to do is predict when these occur on the sun, how they get through space between the sun and the Earth and what happens when they arrive. We’re trying to predict that in the same way you try to predict the weather. We’re trying to predict space weather.”

McAteer, who teaches classes on the solar system, said a solar eclipse in 2001 first sparked his interest into the study of solar physics. His research includes the dynamics of the quiet sun, active region magnetic fields and solar flares, and the initiation and propagation of coronal mass ejections. In his work, he uses spectroscopy, imaging and detailed modeling to analyze data from a vast array of instruments.

The NSF Early CAREER Award supports faculty who integrate research creativity and innovative teaching. McAteer, whose research involves how energy is stored and released on the sun, is among a handful of professors at NMSU in recent years to win the highly competitive award.

NMSU Professor James McAteer

NMSU Professor James McAteer will receive a $750,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award to study the sun.

McAteer will use the grant for graduate and undergraduate science and engineering projects, focusing on atmospheric changes of the sun and the evolution of sunspots. He expects to involve 10 graduate students and 10-15 undergraduate students in the research. Students from multiple disciplines will be needed, from those who work with supercomputers and large data sets, to those in physics and electromagnetism, to those who work with time series and rocket control software.

“With all these interdisciplinary components, we can pull students from different backgrounds into doing research,” McAteer said.

McAteer is looking at two problems: the dichotomy between the outer parts of the sun that are hotter than the core and the question of how solar storms are powered. The same set of equations solves both problems, however McAteer said the observations they predict are different. McAteer and his team will look at those observations and test the equations, which may lead to new ways of predicting solar storms.

“So in the same way Hurricane Katrina came, it caused a lot of damage,” he said. “If we can predict one of those big solar storms, those one in 100-year events so we can avoid some of that damage, it could be a huge benefit to society.”

McAteer is a team member for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and STEREO spacecraft (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory). He is a co-investigator on the ROSA (Rapid Oscillations in the Solar Atmosphere) instrument at the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, N.M., the Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory in Ireland and the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter mission.

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