Virginia Tech space center to host international meeting

Mike Ruohniemi

Mike Ruohoniemi

BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 21, 2010 – The Virginia Tech SuperDARN (Super Dual Auroral Radar Network) Radar group of the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research is hosting a meeting of the National Science Foundation Upper Atmosphere Facilities at the Hotel Roanoke Oct. 26-29.

Approximately 50 of the world’s leading space scientists, engineers, program directors, and managers will meet to discuss the continued operations of the state-of-the-art experimental facilities, new directions in space science research, and other opportunities.

Virginia Tech is considered a leader in this community due to its management of the SuperDARN space weather radar facility.

SuperDARN is a high-latitude network of radars used to obtain increasingly sophisticated views of electric fields, plasma structures, atmospheric waves, and other effects in the ionosphere and atmosphere. The network is an international collaboration with support provided by the funding agencies of more than a dozen countries. The radars combine to give extensive views of the upper atmosphere in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Virginia Tech’s J. Michael Ruohoniemi, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is the lead principal investigator on a $6 million grant announced in 2009 to build additional radar units. Nearly $2 million of the award was directed to Virginia Tech and Ruohoniemi’s research center, Space@VT, directed by Wayne Scales, also of electrical and computer engineering. 

Ruohoniemi, formerly of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and involved with SuperDARN since his days as a junior scientist, was instrumental in the move of the highly prestigious SuperDARN Radar Group to Virginia Tech in 2008. The enticement of the Blacksburg campus was due to several key factors including Scales’ build-up of Space@VT and Virginia Tech’s ability to attract students and award Ph.D.s in the engineering disciplines.

“We wanted to increase the exposure of U.S.-based students to SuperDARN and to radar techniques for space research and engineering,” Ruohoniemi said.

Construction of the new radars is occurring in pairs at a rate one pair per year at each of four sites, for a total of eight radars over four years. The new radars will join three existing mid-latitude radars to make up a continuous chain of coverage that extends from Europe to eastern Asia.

As Ruohoniemi explained the science, “The Earth’s magnetosphere is immersed in the tenuous, fully-ionized outer atmosphere of the sun, which is responsible for the solar wind and its structured and dynamic magnetic field. In the aftermath of severe solar disturbances, such as solar flares, energized solar wind plasma impinges on the Earth’s magnetic and plasma environment and initiates a broad range of interactions. These reactions lead to the onset of disturbances in the magnetosphere.

“During these events, the magnetosphere-ionosphere system passes through a range of states that can be described as quiescent, mildly disturbed, and storm-like. As each transition takes place, the effects of disturbance reach to ever increasing fractions of the Earth’s plasma environment. The consequences of these solar-induced disturbances are often described as space weather and they can threaten harm to humans in space, perturb spacecraft orbits, damage spacecraft electronics, and disrupt radio, radar, and GPS operations.”

SuperDARN is the sole instrument that is capable of providing direct measurements of plasma convection and electric fields in the ionosphere on global scales with high temporal resolution.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 6,000 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology. Virginia Tech, the most comprehensive university in Virginia, is dedicated to quality, innovation, and results to the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.