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New Evidence About Space Weather Revealed
May 16, 2016

New evidence regarding a scientifically controversial theory about the earth’s magnetic field and space weather was discovered almost as soon as Virginia Tech researchers finished installing six data-collection stations near the South Pole in January. The researchers observed that the polar ionosphere — southern, northern, winter, summer — is subject to a constant current.

Zhonghua Xu (left) and Mike Hartinger represent Virginia Tech in front of solar panels at their base camp in Antarctica.

For the first time, data confirmed that regardless of the hemisphere or the season, waves on the boundary of the magnetosphere produced by solar-wind pressure changes are linked to both the northern and southern ionospheres by electric currents of the same magnitude, researchers said.

The project to develop and deploy these autonomous data-collection stations in the Antarctic has progressed over a seven-year period. The latest findings have not been published or peer-reviewed.

Supported by $2.66 million from the National Science Foundation, Robert Clauer, a Virginia Tech professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering, and his team designed and hand-built six autonomous data-collection stations, and installed them, piece by piece, near the geographic South Pole for initial testing.

The autonomous data-collection stations were placed along the 40-degree magnetic meridian (longitude), deep in the polar cap areas under the auroras. The stations — in the harsh environment of the remote east Antarctic plateau — are the Southern Hemisphere counterpart to a magnetically conjugate chain in Greenland.

These space weather stations allow researchers to watch how the behavior of the sun and the solar wind — an unbroken supersonic flow of charged particles exploded from the sun — changes over time and how the earth’s magnetic field responds to solar wind variations — all with the goal of building a detailed, reliable model of space weather.

They hope that, eventually, space-weather forecasting will become as reliable as today’s winter storm warnings are for school systems. Although invisible to the naked eye, space weather can have serious, detrimental effects on modern technological infrastructure, including telecommunications, navigation, and electrical power systems.

The National Science Foundation manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, through which it supports researchers nationwide, provides logistical support to the research and operates three year-round manned stations in Antarctica.

This story can be found on the Virginia Tech News website.

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