Boston College Scientists Help Turn a New Lens on the Heavens

Institute for Scientific Research collects data on auroras in space

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Their eyes weren't playing tricks on them when astronauts saw northern lights in space. A satellite camera Boston College scientists helped build has recorded auroras more than 500 miles above the Earth's surface.


Images of "northern lights" in space collected by a satellite camera that was built with the assistance of staff from Boston College's Institute for Scientific Research. The orbiting camera allows space weather forecasters to improve forecasts of geomagnetic storms that disrupt many communications and electrical systems on Earth. (Photos courtesy of the Institute for Scientific Research)
Scientists from Boston College's Institute for Scientific Research helped collect images from the orbiting camera that captured the shimmering lights at far higher altitudes than previously believed possible, confirming a phenomenon that had been dismissed as a figment of shuttle astronauts' imagination.

The orbiting camera, known as the Solar Mass Ejection Imager, was built by a team that included BC Research Physicist David Webb and Research Astronomers Don Mizuno and Thomas Kuchar, based at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, and scientists from the University of California at San Diego, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and Boston University.

The colorful lights in space drew headlines when described in December at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

But the auroras are really sidelights to a larger story, the BC scientists say.

In the year since it was launched by the Air Force in January 2003, the Solar Mass Ejection Imager has allowed scientists for the first time to directly image clouds of electrons that travel from the sun during solar flare activity.

These clouds of electrons cause geomagnetic storms that can disrupt communications satellites, affecting cell phones, the communications and global navigational systems of aircraft and ships at sea, and even electrical systems on the ground.

The orbiting camera allows space weather forecasters to substantially improve their predictions of geomagnetic storms.

The BC scientists have been responsible for processing data sent back from the spacecraft orbiting 550 nautical miles above the Earth.


(L-R) Don Mizuno, David Webb and Tom Kuchar of the Institute for Scientific Research, who helped build the Solar Mass Ejection Imager.
"We take images in visible light of the entire sky once every orbit," explained Webb.

"We have three cameras that take split images, each one with a 3-by-60-degree field of view. One camera is pointed near the sun, the second is pointed further out at the boundary of day and night, and the third looks at the night sky away from the sun.

"You stitch together the three images to make a bigger semi-circle, 3-by-180 degrees.

"As the spacecraft orbits the Earth, you get a narrow band sweeping the entire sky. It's a way of representing the entire sky in one flat image."

The BC scientists study the images for signs of coronal ejections, which Webb said appear to be "wispy clouds" moving across the space sky.

Kuchar said: "You can actually see these things at a significant distance from the Sun. I don't think anyone has continually tracked these things as they come toward Earth."

When the electrons hit the Earth's atmosphere they give off a glow that Webb likened to a "fluorescent light in the upper atmosphere."

Recording the glow 550 miles above the Earth was a treat, the scientists said. "We never expected to see auroral lights at that altitude," said Webb. "It's always exciting to find something unexpected."

Consider the lights a bit of shimmer. "Our central purpose is the forecasting of coronal mass ejections," said Webb. "We're helping to lead that effort."

Imagery from the spacecraft may be seen on the Web at http://smei.nso.edu/. For more information about the Solar Mass Ejection Imager, see http://www.vs.afrl.af.mil/Division/VSBX/SMEI.html.

-The University of California at San Diego news service contributed to this report.

 

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