Press Release

CU-Boulder To Receive $12 Million To Participate In Solar Space Mission

By SpaceRef Editor
May 11, 2005
Filed under , ,

A University of Colorado at Boulder space research group will receive $12.2 million to participate in an upcoming NASA mission to explore the fundamental physics of electromagnetic fields near Earth as they interact with the solar wind.

The team from CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics will be part of NASA’s Magnetospheric MultiScale mission, or MMS, spearheaded by the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. LASP will help design, fabricate and test components for the SMART experiment, a suite of instruments slated to launch on MMS in 2013 and gather data on processes that transport, accelerate and energize plasmas in Earth’s magnetosphere.

The SMART experiment on MMS will study the physical processes that occur when plasma streaming from the sun triggers outbursts like electromagnetic storms that can affect orbiting spacecraft as well as power grids on Earth, said LASP Professor Robert Ergun, who is leading the CU effort. Related processes like solar and stellar flares permeate the universe and are responsible for many fundamental astrophysical processes, but relatively little is known about them, he said.

“CU-Boulder has been selected to play a fairly significant role in the science of this mission, and we are happy about that,” said Ergun. “Ultimately, we think missions like this will help scientists better understand how the universe functions in a fundamental way.”

More than a dozen faculty, researchers and students at LASP, the astrophysical and planetary science department and the physics department will be involved in the MMS mission, said Ergun.

The MMS mission will begin with the simultaneous launch of four disk-shaped satellites resembling “flying porcupines,” each about three feet high and seven feet in diameter with extensive instrumentation and protruding antennas, said Ergun. The SMART experiment will use the sophisticated antennas to gather data on the processes occurring in the electrified plasma, which will be sent to LASP’s Space Technology Building, archived and distributed to scientists around the world, including researchers at CU-Boulder.

Plasma physics has a number of applications in the world today, ranging from plasma televisions and fluorescent lights to ion engines used to power interplanetary spacecraft, said Ergun. “There are probably a whole bunch of applications in the future we just haven’t thought of yet,” he said.

LASP Director Daniel Baker will participate in the energetic particle experiment on the MMS mission. Baker has been involved in a number of NASA missions studying the interactions of the sun and Earth during his career. The science operations for MMS will be coordinated by Randy Davis, the mission operations director at LASP.

The magnetosphere is the region above the Earth’s atmosphere encompassing the planet’s magnetic field, which frequently is battered by violent space weather disruptive to spacecraft and Earth communications.

According to NASA officials at the Goddard Space Flight Center, the MMS mission is expected to help scientists better understand the effects of the sun on Earth, the solar system and the space environment frequented by astronauts.

For more information on the MMS mission and NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Probe program, visit the Web at: For more information on LASP, visit:

Contact: Robert Ergun, (303) 492-1560

Jim Scott, (303) 492-3114

SpaceRef staff editor.