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Science In The Stratosphere

To further study these interactions, the Hanson Center launched CINDI, a small research satellite, in a joint effort with NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.
by Ola Lajayi
Dallas TX (SPX) Jan 28, 2009
A young woman in a sleek red unitard flits through space just above the earth. Behind her trail a shock of orange hair and a pair of flowing nets as she patrols the upper atmosphere for stray dogs.

This is CINDI, the android hero of a short comic book distributed by UTD's Hanson Center for Space Sciences to introduce elementary and middle school students to the basic science of the upper atmosphere.

Separated from the main campus by Waterview Drive, the Hanson Center is housed in the Westec building where students and researchers do much more than distribute comics.

"We are interested in two things," said Rod Heelis, director of the Hanson Center. "One is how the upper atmosphere of the earth is formed due to the interaction of our planet with the sun. The second is how that environment affects the operation of space based systems that we rely on."

To further study these interactions, the Hanson Center launched CINDI, a small research satellite, in a joint effort with NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

"It's a huge project. It's not cheap," said Greg Earle, UTD physics professor and CINDI team member. "It's a good-sized satellite, and it cost several million dollars just to put one of those in orbit. And, there are many more millions of dollars that go into development and testing."

The mission's objective, Heelis said, is to determine periods when activity in the upper atmosphere prompts signal outages in technology such as radio communications and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

Achieving a better understanding of the upper atmosphere, can have a large practical impact, Heelis said.

The FAA relies heavily on GPS navigation systems for tracking and routing airplanes. Enhancing GPS performance can also help air traffic run better, Heelis said.

"What we are trying to do with our knowledge is to predict when those navigation systems will fail," Heelis said. "We call it space weather forecasting rather than just weather forecasting."

Activity in the upper atmosphere is analogous to weather patterns on the earth, Heelis said, but predicting weather from space can be challenging.

"In space, we don't have many weather stations," he said. "What we have to do is build a better physical model of what the region looks like, and then constrain the model with just a few data points that we have."

Heelis said that, unlike a terrestrial weather station, a satellite changes its position in relation to the earth as it rotates, so it can collect data from numerous points. This enables researchers to construct a more comprehensive map of weather patterns in the upper atmosphere.

The Hanson Center, which has been around in some form since UTD was founded as the Graduate Center for the Southwest in 1969, will continue to explore space and the upper atmosphere.

Earle said there is a new project that would involve undergraduates for the first time. Students would help build and fly many small satellites to gather more data on the upper atmosphere.

"If you can fly enough of those things, maybe you can start to predict space weather the same way you predict weather," he said. "We are a long way from doing that, but we are starting."

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