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UH gets grant for project to monitor space weather

A photo shows what the inside of a neutron monitor planned for Maui would look like. Photo courtesy of UH

The Maui News

A four-year, $2.5 million grant will fund a project to construct a space weather station center on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus and deploy a neutron monitor on Maui, UH announced Sunday.

UH-Manoa, which is leading a project to better predict and understand weather in space, will receive $1.2 million of the $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to go toward its Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The project will measure the most powerful particles emitted by the sun, which are solar energetic particles and solar neutron particles, according to the UH news release. These particles can pose a risk to astronauts and lead to a major failure of electronics in space, such as satellites, and the technologies used in space travel by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. On Earth, solar storms may affect the power grid and disrupt radio communications.

The project will help to better monitor the solar particles and develop alert systems to advance predictions of space weather hazards so that astronauts are safe during space missions, UH said. UH-Manoa Associate Professor Veronica Bindi, the principal investigator on the project, added that the station and neutron monitor will take about three years to construct and will be built just in time for the next “solar maximum,” which is expected sometime in 2025 or 2026.

“Here on the ground, before doing an activity like hiking or surfing, you want to know about the weather. The same is with space mission planning,” said Bindi. “You want to know that the weather is going to be nice, which means that we are not going to have too many particles coming towards our astronauts, instruments and assets in space.”

Bindi is working with UH’s Institute for Astronomy to identify a high-elevation site in existing facilities on Maui and obtain necessary approvals and permits to place a neutron monitor, which is about the size of a shipping container.

According to Bindi, the site on Haleakala was chosen because more particles will be captured the higher the monitor is located above sea level. The monitor will be one of 50 worldwide that will increase the coverage to more parts of the globe.

A data processing center will also be created on the UH-Manoa campus to serve as a hub for the researchers to work and organize the data. They will combine the data gathered on Haleakala, with energetic particle data from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the International Space Station, and make their results displayed to the public in real time.

Bindi says her team is collaborating with researchers from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Arizona. As the principal investigator, Bindi and UH-Manoa will manage the entire project and be involved in every aspect of its goals. The University of New Hampshire will support the construction of the neutron monitor, with its initial data taking, calibration and data quality. The University of Arizona will work on theoretical models that describe the propagation of particles from the sun to Earth used to define space weather results and forecast capabilities.

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