NJIT launches potent research hub: Institute for space weather sciences

January 3, 2019

Both on land and in space, Earth’s technology-centered civilization is increasingly vulnerable to the powerful bursts of electromagnetic radiation, energetic charged particles and magnetized plasma known as space weather. As the complexity of engineered systems increases, as new technologies are invented and deployed, and as humans venture ever further beyond Earth’s surface, both human-built systems and humans themselves become more susceptible to the effects of the planet’s space environment.

It is with these vulnerabilities in mind – and in response to urgent calls from government agencies, insurers, electrical grid operators and others for more sophisticated research, forecasting and mitigation strategies – that New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is forming the multidisciplinary Institute for Space Weather Sciences to advance both theoretical and applied research on our civilization’s interface with these cosmic forces.

Led by Haimin Wang, distinguished professor of physics and chief scientist at NJIT’s Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO), the Institute will combine the strengths of the university’s groundbreaking solar scientists with powerful computing and mathematical capabilities. Its mission will be to safeguard national security, the global economy and human safety.

At the institute’s launch at NJIT’s annual Research Centers and Laboratories Showcase and President’s Forum, Wang recalled knowing “nothing” about space weather while he was a graduate student, because the instruments to study it in depth and precision did not yet exist. “But as technology advances, we understand more and more about its impact,” he noted.

Mona Kessel, Ph.D., the NASA program and research scientist who delivered the keynote address at the 2018 showcase, pointed to GPS as an example of a space-based “highly utilized commodity we’re quite dependent on” that is at risk of major disruption from space weather. She added, “There are things we can do on Earth to prepare.”

At the institute’s core is the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research (CSTR). With its array of unique instruments on land and in space – the world’s largest operating solar telescope, a newly expanded radio array with 15 antennas, instruments aboard NASA’s Van Allen Probes spacecraft and devices deployed across Antarctica, to name a few – the Center is uniquely poised to advance understanding of the genesis, acceleration and impact of solar storms, as well as provide a comprehensive view of solar activity over months and years.

Joining the CSTR are modeling and big data analytics experts at the Center for Computational Heliophysics, who partner with NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing division at the NASA Ames Research Center, and researchers at the Center for Big Data. The latter’s mission will be to synergize expertise in various disciplines across the NJIT campus and to build a unified platform that embodies a rich set of big data-enabling technologies and services with optimized performance.

Indeed, the specter of a geomagnetic solar storm with the ferocity to disrupt communications satellites, knock out GPS systems, shut down air travel and quench lights, computers and telephones in millions of homes for days, months or even years is a low-probability, but high-impact risk that space scientists, global insurance corporations and federal agencies from the Department of Homeland Security, to NASA, to the Department of Defense take seriously.

While the recent solar cycle has been relatively inactive, Kessel noted, there have been periods in which storms have been more sustained and ferocious. “But it wasn’t so important back then. We didn’t rely on space the way we do now. It’s important to gather knowledge that we pass down.”

The future of space-based research will also depend on the scientific community’s ability to create materials and systems able to withstand powerful cosmic radiation on long space trips. “We’d like to (send humans) to Mars, but we can’t yet,” she added.

In addition to applied research, Wang says the institute will focus in particular on several fundamental questions: how energy builds toward a solar eruption; the mechanisms that trigger solar eruptions; the reason that some eruptions reach Earth, while others do not; and the effects of eruptions on earth, such as high-energy particles and geomagnetic storms.

But these questions do not preoccupy researchers alone. As NJIT President Joel Bloom noted at the launch, “As I travel, talking to leaders in the Air Force, China and Egypt, space is increasingly a topic of conversation.”

As he watched NASA’s Mars InSight successfully land on the surface of the planet, Vince DeCaprio, vice chair of the NJIT Board of Trustees and a supporter, with his family, of the annual President’s Forum, noted the power of scientific discovery to bring researchers and peoples together. The point of the forum, he added, is to explore “the effect of science on society and on our lives.”

For more information on NJIT’s recent space weather milestones, visit https://news.njit.edu/njit-launches-institute-space-weather-sciences.

About New Jersey Institute of Technology:

One of only 32 polytechnic universities in the United States, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) prepares undergraduate and graduate students and professionals to become leaders in the technology-dependent economy of the 21st century. NJIT’s multidisciplinary curriculum and computing-intensive approach to education provide technological proficiency, business acumen and leadership skills. NJIT has a $1.74 billion annual economic impact on the State of New Jersey, conducts approximately $140 million in research activity each year, and is a global leader in such fields as solar research, nanotechnology, resilient design, tissue engineering and cybersecurity, in addition to others. NJIT is ranked #1 nationally by Forbes for the upward economic mobility of its lowest-income students and is among the top 2 percent of public colleges and universities in return on educational investment, according to PayScale.com.