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NASA Announces Future Launch for USU-Led Space Weather Mission

NASA announced that the launch of the Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory and College of Science-led Atmospheric Waves Experiment, or AWE, is scheduled for December 2023. The NASA-funded instrument will launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to the International Space Station.

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AWE Principal Investigator Dr. Michael Taylor from USU’s College of Science leads a team of scientists that will provide new details about how the weather on Earth interacts with, and affects, space weather. To do that, the AWE instrument, measuring about 54 centimeters by one meter and weighing less than 57 kilograms, will peer into Earth’s upper atmosphere from an orbit of about 400 kilometers above to provide unprecedented images of Earth’s gravity waves as they rise through the mesopause, the mesosphere’s upper boundary, and into other parts of the ionosphere.

Atmospheric gravity waves are generated by weather events on Earth, including strong winds that shoot upward as they collide with large mountains, hurricanes that create gravity waves directly through high winds and indirectly by interacting with underlying topography, and seismic activities such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Impacts from atmospheric gravity waves and space weather can adversely affect satellites that provide seemingly ubiquitous services across the globe and for human spaceflight missions. Communications, banking, navigation, and entertainment largely depend on spacecraft that receive ground data and beam information to Earth. New knowledge from AWE will help scientists more accurately forecast the effect of atmospheric gravity waves and space weather on satellite communications and enable mission planners and satellite operators to plan contingencies.

“The mesopause is our porthole to space weather, through which Earth’s atmospheric gravity waves that affect space weather must pass,” said Taylor, professor in USU’s Department of Physics. “From Earth, as in space, we can sometimes see this region of the atmosphere when it produces colorful bands of light known as airglow. Scientists have been studying atmospheric gravity waves from the ground for decades. AWE will allow for observations from space for the first time and provide us with new information about interactions between the waves and space weather.”

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USU’s Space Dynamics Laboratory is responsible for AWE’s total project management, systems engineering, safety and mission assurance, and on-orbit operations.

“Following a rigorous calibration and test campaign to ensure that the science instrument is flight ready, SDL is making preparations for AWE’s safe storage until it is shipped to Cape Canaveral,” said Burt Lamborn, SDL’s AWE project manager. “SDL is looking forward to the December launch of AWE, but our work will not be finished. We are honored to work with NASA’s Heliophysics team and Dr. Taylor as SDL leads mission operations once the instrument is launched and integrated onto the ISS.”

USU has been involved in space research for nearly seven decades and is a NASA Space Grant university. However, AWE is a major milestone for USU. It represents the first time the university has served as a total mission provider for a major NASA program. USU is providing the principal investigator, manufacturing the science instrument, and leading on-orbit and mission operations management.

AWE is a Mission of Opportunity under NASA’s Heliophysics Explorers Program, which conducts innovative, streamlined scientific investigations by developing instrumentation to answer focused science questions that augment and complement the agency’s larger missions. AWE joins a fleet of heliophysics missions positioned at key places around the solar system, which together seek to understand the way the constant outflow of energy and particles from our Sun affects interplanetary space — information that not only teaches us more about our astrophysical neighborhood, but helps protect astronauts and technology in space.

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