NASA Extends Johns Hopkins APL-Led Solar and Space Physics Research Center

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Two years ago, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, joined researchers from across the country to establish a NASA science center that would foster new collaborations and create models and simulations that would transform our ability to understand and predict potentially harmful events in the space surrounding Earth.

Illustration of warm-colored magnetic lines from the Sun crashing into cool-colored field lines around Earth and its magnetic field
The Center for Geospace Storms set out with the goal to build the most detailed computer model of geospace, the large swath of atmosphere and space around Earth. The model would facilitate scientists’ understanding and predictive capability of space weather events. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)

Now, after the tremendous initial progress and success of the Center for Geospace Storms (CGS), NASA recently announced that it will expand the center for an additional five years, citing the center’s significant potential for transformative impact on the fields of space weather and space physics. CGS is one of three selected to enter Phase II of NASA’s Diversity, Realize, Integrate, Venture, Educate (DRIVE) Science Center initiative.

“This selection is a testament to the groundbreaking advancements and continued scientific potential of the Center for Geospace Storms for the space physics and space weather communities,” said Jason Kalirai, APL’s mission area executive for Civil Space. “APL is proud to continue supporting this incredible team and looks forward with excitement to watching it bring significant scientific capabilities to these fields over the next five years.”

From the outset, the CGS team aimed to untangle the complex web of interactions that occur in geospace — the roughly one million miles of space that surrounds Earth — during solar storms. The maze of small-to-large-scale interactions that occur among Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere and upper and lower atmosphere have been overwhelmingly challenging to simulate. Scientists know, however, that these interactions are critical to predicting space weather events that can disrupt satellite communications, damage or even terminate spacecraft, endanger astronauts and cause blackouts on the ground.

To address that challenge, the CGS team has been developing a beyond state-of-the-art computer model that can simulate and predict the effects of solar storms on geospace with unprecedented completeness. Called the Multiscale Atmosphere-Geospace Environment, or MAGE, model, the new computationally hefty system knits together several high-resolution physics-based models for Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere, upper atmosphere and — for the first time in a global model of geospace — lower atmosphere. It then injects the newly stitched model with real data from ground stations and spacecraft to simulate storms with higher accuracy and detail than any modeling system before it.

“MAGE is bringing a capability that we haven’t seen in the community before: the ability to get down to smaller-scale features and help place them in a global context,” said Mike Wiltberger, a space physicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the deputy director of CGS. “MAGE really pushes the boundaries of being able to do that.”

Using CGS’s MAGE model, which currently fully couples Earth’s magnetosphere with its ionosphere and upper atmosphere, the CGS team was able to simulate disturbances of neutral gas density in Earth’s atmosphere some 250 miles above the surface that a significant geospace storm on Aug. 24, 2005 caused. The storm initially triggered disturbances in the magnetosphere. They were then transmitted to Earth’s polar ionosphere and upper atmosphere before propagating around the globe. The top panel of the video shows the orbits of two spacecraft, CHAMP and GRACE, which captured these propagating atmospheric density disturbances (views from Northern and Southern hemispheres within the MAGE simulation shown). The bottom panel shows how the MAGE model (in red on top, blue on bottom) correctly propagated these disturbances across the globe to produce density data that closely matches what both CHAMP and GRACE observed during the storm. (Credit: American Geophysical Union, Pham et al., 2022)

Slava Merkin, a space physicist at APL and CGS’s principal investigator and director, echoed that sentiment. “We’ve achieved breakthrough results on the development of the MAGE model, and it’s already redefined the state of the art in space weather modeling,” he said.

Since 2020, the team has published a number of papers using MAGE to provide new insight on the physics of geospace. For example, team members in 2021 unraveled the mystery behind the aurora’s ”string of pearls” phenomenon — when the aurora takes on small, bead-like shapes just before the bright, auroral shows at Earth’s higher latitudes.

“These breakthroughs required a new kind of model and wouldn’t have been possible without MAGE,” Merkin said.

Mirroring NASA’s goals for its DRIVE centers, the CGS team has also fostered a rich scientific and diverse community by organizing scientific workshops, arranging student events at participating universities and working with students from underrepresented communities.

Team members have taught middle school students about space weather, had students at Howard University produce infographics to pave ways for underrepresented students and indigenous cultures to gain identities in space science and other STEM fields, and organized three workshops to cultivate community and collaboration among seasoned and budding professional space scientists.

“We’ve built the foundation on which we can erect a full-scale Phase II center,” Merkin said. “Importantly, we used the two years of Phase I for center-forming and team-building activities and are now poised to hit the ground running.”

In this second phase, APL will lead CGS in partnership with NCAR, the University of New Hampshire, Rice University, Virginia Tech, UCLA and Syntek Technologies. CGS collaborates with Howard University, the American Museum of Natural History, the Maryland Science Center, the NASA Community Coordinated Modeling Center and a growing number of international collaborators to foster broadening impacts and provide career opportunities for students and early-career scientists. Learn more about the Center for Geospace Storms at https://cgs.jhuapl.edu.

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