NASA taps BC researchers to lead space weather center of excellence

Boston College’s Institute for Scientific Research will head an international team in the five-year initiative

Boston College’s Institute for Scientific Research will lead an international team of researchers in a five-year, $10-million NASA-funded initiative to better forecast disturbances in the upper atmosphere and their impacts on global navigation and satellite communications technologies.

The Space Weather Research and Technology Applications (SPARTA) Center of Excellence will use computer models to replicate space weather disturbances and use experiments, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to develop solutions to help improve the performance of satellites and other navigational technology in adverse conditions.

“Our approach is to develop high fidelity physical models of the instability processes and validate their performance using ground- and space-based observations of ionospheric turbulence,” said ISR Interim Director Keith Groves, SPARTA’s principal investigator. “We will seek to improve performance by ultimately replacing the physical models with deep-learning, or artificial intelligence, algorithms.”

The team will also apply machine-learning methods to identify the reasons for performance shortfalls so that deficiencies can be quickly addressed. The BC team will be joined by researchers from Cornell University, MIT, Boston University, the University of Colorado, Canada’s University of New Brunswick, Aerospace Corp., and Space Dynamics Lab.

SPARTA puts the renowned ISR at the forefront of one of three Centers of Excellence created by NASA, in collaboration with the United States Department of Commerce, to develop a forecast system that will better specify and predict ionospheric irregularities and associated radio wave scintillation, or rapid wave fluctuations.

“This system will supplement a gap in scientific understanding and help address the challenges of this critical space weather impact,” according to a NASA statement announcing the awards last summer.

An important phenomenon in the field of space weather consists of instabilities that cause turbulence in the ionosphere, that layer of the upper atmosphere that begins approximately 60 miles above the earth and continues upward approximately 500 miles.

“The ionosphere contains charged particles, such as ions and electrons, and when subject to turbulence they affect the propagation of radio waves, causing their amplitude and phase to fluctuate rapidly,” Groves said. These fluctuations, technically referred to as scintillations, are similar to the “twinkling” of distant stars caused by optical effects that atmospheric disturbances produce in the light we see from the ground.

“From the standpoint of satellite-based communications and navigation, strong scintillations may cause complete outages for global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), which encompasses the more familiar global positioning satellite (GPS) system. Forecasting these instabilities and the resulting impacts on space-based technologies is central to the work the Institute for Scientific Research has been doing for the last 50 years.”

Accurate forecasts should provide situational awareness to users of space-based navigation and communications systems, such as the aviation industry, Groves said. While these disruptive natural processes cannot be stopped, providing warnings can allow users to consider alternate sources of communications and/or navigation information, or to adjust the schedule for specific activities—similar to the way people modify their plans based on terrestrial weather forecasts readily available through print, broadcast, and electronic media.

“At this time, there are no reliable forecasts for these ionospheric processes,” Groves said.

The team is focused on delivering a forecast capability with known uncertainties to the space-based user community via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

“We also want to deliver a roadmap for how to improve forecasts in the future, a very important product,” said Groves. “We are already working with NOAA under another grant to help improve their specification capabilities for scintillation.”

The immediate next steps are to map out the core research objectives with the team and implement an effective collaborative approach across all of the institutions that make up the SPARTA Center of Excellence, Groves said. A kick-off meeting is planned for this coming mid-January.