We couldn’t survive on Earth without our shining star — the sun — 93 million miles away..Yet we have much to learn about the environment called the
heliosphere that surrounds the sun and planets like a giant teardrop,
extending past Earth and beyond Neptune to the edge of the solar system.
It’s a place where the solar wind flows and solar storms occur, sending
out billions of volts of energy.
Knowing more about the heliosphere matters, says University of
Delaware physicist William Matthaeus, if we ever want to build a space
station on the moon, send astronauts to Mars, continuously protect
satellites and electrical systems on Earth, and even factor in the
effects of space weather on our changing climate.
Matthaeus and co-investigator Michael Shay, an associate professor in UD’s Department of Physics and Astronomy,
have been awarded a three-year, $1.2 million grant from NASA’s
Heliophysics Grand Challenges Program to explore how energy from the sun
is transported across the heliosphere.
Scientists Arcadi Ismanov and Melvyn Goldstein from NASA’s Goddard
Space Flight Center and Vadim Roytershteyn at the Space Sciences
Institute also will collaborate on the project.
The UD team will draw on their expertise in theoretical physics and
reconnection physics, respectively, to develop simulation models of
solar energy transport from macro- to micro-scales, ranging from the
global solar wind to microscopic movement of space plasma, which makes
up the solar wind, stars and lightning.
“We’re working to explain something in nature that has never been explained before,” says Matthaeus.
“The coupling between these different regimes is one of the most
fundamental problems in space physics and one of the greatest ones,”
notes Shay, who will be using supercomputers across the country to do
the massive calculations required in the research.
The project’s “cross-scale couplings” will involve turbulence theory
and modeling, plasma physics theory and kinetic plasma simulation.
Recently, Matthaeus and Shay met with experts in ocean sciences,
engineering, and other fields to create a new working group on the UD
campus. Turbulence Research on Environmental and Astrophysical Transport
(TREAT) will examine issues of turbulence, the violent movement of air
and water, and also investigate how findings about ocean wave flow may
inform space science and the propagation of the solar wind.
“Sometimes bursts of solar wind — coronal mass ejections — shake
Earth so hard they cause reconnection events,” Matthaeus says, referring
to the crossing and reconnecting of the magnetic fields that travel in
opposite directions at the planet’s poles.
That’s when large amounts of energetic solar wind particles, trapped
by Earth’s magnetic field, are accelerated toward Earth. These
high-energy particles can potentially knock out satellites, disrupting
communications, take out power grids, and cause planes to be re-routed
from flying over the poles to avoid exposing pilots and passengers to
“We really want to understand the place our planet has in the
universe, and the first thing is to understand its place in the
neighborhood,” Matthaeus says.
To view simulations of space plasma and magnetic reconnection, visit the scientists’ web page.