The Catholic University of America

Feb. 5, 2008

CUA Receives $244,000 Grant from NASA

Scientists to Explore the Cause of Magnetic Storms, Northern Lights

Depiction of a solar explosive flare with a coronal mass ejection (Photo: NASA)

Three CUA physics professors have received a $244,000 grant from NASA to better understand solar eruptions of charged particles, which cause the famed Northern Lights but also can wreak havoc on Earth.

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are eruptions of electrically charged gas spewed from the surface of the sun into interplanetary space. These ejections usually are associated with strong magnetic fields near sunspots on the solar surface. The fields can release large amounts of energy powering these high speed ejections, expelled at hundreds of miles per second - comparable to the light energy emitted per second by the sun.

Many of these clouds of charged particles contain radiation that can damage satellites and pose a hazard to astronauts in space. They can also cause severe magnetic storms on Earth, shutting down electrical power grids and pipelines. The interaction of CMEs with the Earth's magnetic fields causes the Northern Lights, a series of naturally occurring colored light displays that appear in the polar zone at night.

CUA research professor Seiji Yashiro, the study's lead scientist, will investigate the eruption mechanism of CMEs. Although scientists have a basic picture of how CMEs arise, much of the phenomenon remains a mystery. Yashiro will investigate the relationship between these ejections and solar flares, which are thought to be a different manifestation of the same eruption process. A solar flare is a sudden flash of electromagnetic radiation in the solar atmosphere. The sudden release of magnetic energy that produces this flash of light is in some way linked to CMEs, but the exact mechanism is not yet understood.

CUA research professors Pertti Makela and Hong Xie will also participate in the study, investigating the relationship between CMEs and geomagnetic storms.

"We are thrilled that NASA has given us the opportunity to further explore this phenomenon and hope to help unlock one of space's great mysteries," said Fred Bruhweiler, professor of physics and director of CUA's Institute for Astrophysics and Computational Sciences. The institute is a partner with NASA and operates out of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy at 202-319-5600.

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