UI-made instruments to be part of NASA mission - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

UI-made instruments to be part of NASA mission

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IOWA CITY (KWWL) -

Pick up a GPS receiver to get directions, and you're being affected by space weather.

"Communication satellites are vital for human society," said Robert Mutel, UI Professor of Astronomy.

Communication satellites like the ones used for GPS orbit the Earth close to two donut shaped radiation belts of unstable high-energy particles trapped by the Earth's magnetic field.

"They're dangerous, these places.  They're space weather which interferes with satellites. They're dangerous radiation for astronauts, and they're constantly changing," Mutel said.

For the first time since the late UI astrophysicist James Van Allen discovered these regions, NASA will attempt to understand the extremes of the belts and how to better forecast space weather.

NASA is enlisting the University of Iowa to help in the mission launching Friday.

"It's tremendously exciting to get this type of data and put something together that we've just never seen before," Craig Kletzing, UI professor of physics and astronomy, said on Monday during a NASA press conference. 

Led by Kletzing, a team of UI scientists designed the Electromagnetic Instrument Suite with Integrated Science (EMFISIS) that will be aboard two NASA spacecrafts.

The instruments will measure electric and magnetic fields within the belts.

"It turns out they're critical for the acceleration of the particles, that is what pumps up the radiation belts and makes them bigger and stronger, but they're also what causes the radiation belts to decrease," Kletzing said.

The information learned could go a long way in making sure the technology depended on every day, works as expected.

"The question is, can we predict what we would need to build for that next generation of communication satellites, what kind of shielding do we need, where would the satellite orbits be in regards to the belts, and this mission is going to address those questions," Mutel said.

The NASA launch is set for early Friday morning.

The University of Iowa has now launched more than 50 instruments into space.

Four other institutions are also sending up instruments on those NASA spacecrafts.

The mission is set to last two years.

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