The Utah State University (USU) Space Dynamics Laboratory has been awarded a NASA contract to investigate meteorological phenomena and the disturbances it creates on the Earth's atmosphere.

In the major NASA project, the USU SDL will be investigating how hurricanes and thunderstorms impact the upper layers of the atmosphere. 

"It takes a lot of effort to compete at that level and be awarded an entire mission like this," said project manager Burt Lamborn, as reported by Salt Lake City news channel FOX 13.

Lamborn added that the project is a "Logan, Utah-centric mission" that will provide insight on how weather patterns on earth affect the higher levels of the planet.

Weather-Proofing Satellite Communications

The FOX 13 report follows SDL's successful compliance of the Key Decision Point (KDC) C for the Atmospheric Waves Experiment (AWE).

With NASA approval of the project's Phase C, baselines for schedule and budget can now be allotted to the USU laboratory team and begin finalizing the design and fabrication of the project.

NASA's AWE project is expected to be finalized by September 2021, looking for a November 2022 launch to the International Space Station. The experiment aims to study atmospheric gravity waves, specifically those generated by weather systems and how it affects the ionosphere. Lamborn notes that some of these gravity waves penetrate the atmospheric layer and "stir things up," affecting satellite-based communication systems. In short, the experiment will aim to establish the connection between terrestrial and space weather.

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"Banking, navigation, weather forecasting, and many other applications provided by satellites, as well as human space missions, can be affected by space weather," explains principal investigator Dr. Michael J. Taylor from USU in a news release.

Aside from fabricating the AWE, the USU SDL team will also be responsible for the management of the project, mission operations, safety, mission assurance, and systems engineering.

Lamborn clarifies that data gathered from the experiment would help guide future tech to make them more resistant to these atmospheric disruptions - sensitive military comms, GPS, communication satellites.

A team of about 50 Utah-based researchers are working on the AWE: an experimental setup that includes four telescopes in a cylinder.

NASA's Heliophysics Explorer Program

The NASA AWE project handled by the Utah State University Space Dynamics Lab is classified as a Mission of Opportunity (MO) in the NASA Heliophysics Explorers Program. MOs are described as "investigations characterized by being part of a non-NASA space mission of any size" with NASA costs below 55 million USD.

Approved proposals are then considered to be a part of the Explorers Mission, subsequently classified into any of the three classes: medium class (MIDEX) small explorers (SMEX) and university class (UNEX). Classifications are defined mostly by costs to NASA.

First launched in 1958, the Explorer 1 satellite was the first US spacecraft to achieve orbit. Since then, it has provided flight opportunities for a variety of scientific investigations in space environments. Among the projects launched by the program is the THEMIS mission. Formally designated as the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, the five-satellite constellation (THEMIS A to THEMIS E) studies energy discharges from the magnetosphere - known as substorms - which affect auroras visible near the Earth's poles.


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