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Community Perspective

NASA and the UAF Geophysical Institute: Partners in understanding our solar system

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As NASA expands its presence on the surface of Mars with Thursday’s successful landing of its Perseverance rover, researchers at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are continuing their own NASA-funded work at better understanding the red planet and other components of our solar system.

And they’ve been at it, with NASA’s strong support, for decades.

Here’s some of the impressive work completed, underway, coming up or planned by the Geophysical Institute’s researchers and graduate students into Mars and the rest of the solar system: 

Professor Robert Herrick, a leading researcher in the study of planetary craters, has studied the craters of Mars for several years, analyzing the causes of their variation. He has also studied, in NASA-funded research, the craters of Mercury and the craters and volcanology of Venus.

Herrick is also a member of the science team for a proposed Venus mission known as VERITAS, for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy. The mission concept was announced last year as one of four finalists in NASA’s Discovery Program.

VERITAS, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, would obtain much higher resolution images and topography information about the surface of Venus and acquire information about the composition of the planet’s largely unknown geology.

Pluto, out near the fringe of our solar system, has also been the subject of attention by the Geophysical Institute. Professor Peter Delamere, a space physicist, received NASA funding to model the solar wind’s interaction with Pluto’s escaping atmosphere as part of NASA’s New Horizons mission to the dwarf planet. Delamere has been a longtime New Horizons science collaborator.

And how about Jupiter, the largest of our planets? Delamere also has two NASA grants to study Jupiter. And Geophysical Institute space physicist Peter Damiano, a research associate professor, is also in on the Jupiter research with NASA’s support. He is studying how a certain type of plasma wave affects Jupiter’s aurora.

Geophysical Institute solar system research with NASA is also an international affair at times.

Assistant professor Hyunju Connor, for example, is leading a modeling group for the SMILE mission — Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer — of the European Space Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Her work is funded by a NASA grant. 

Numerous nations, including the U.S. and Canada, are participating in the mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2024. 

And, yes, NASA also supports Geophysical Institute research into our home planet, Earth. 

Two of the major elements in this are the Geophysical Institute’s operation of NASA’s Alaska Satellite Facility and the institute’s cooperative agreement with NASA at the Poker Flat Research Range, located north of Fairbanks and owned by UAF. 

There’s also the people side of the NASA-Geophysical Institute relationship. Graduate students who have studied and worked at the Geophysical Institute find work with NASA, like Fred Calef, who studied under Professor Herrick and later became part of the team on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, which is still working on the Martian surface, and of the Perseverance rover.

And let’s not forget about NASA-funded community and educational outreach by the Geophysical Institute.

The Alaska Satellite Facility, for example, just last year wrapped up its latest NASA-funded education outreach grant, which in part sought to increase the number of students attending the Alaska Summer Research Academy from other parts of the state. The academy, created in 2001 and based at UAF, is a program for middle and high school students.

All of this is important work in which Alaskans have a direct investment and benefit. 

How so? The investment comes from state funding that is used to help bring research grants to our state at the rate of $6 for every $1 of state support. That’s money that benefits Alaska’s economy. It’s money that the Geophysical Institute spends with Alaska businesses. It’s money that Geophysical Institute employees spend in the state.

The benefit comes not only from the local spending by Geophysical Institute faculty and staff but also when NASA brings in a large number of people to support sounding rocket launches at Poker Flat. Society also greatly benefits through the knowledge gained by the research. It’s the findings from that research that tell us more about our Earth and what the future might hold for it.

We at the Geophysical Institute wish NASA’s Perseverance team great success on Mars and look forward to continuing our own work with NASA — and with the support of Alaskans — to increase humankind’s understanding of our solar system and our small and delicate place in it.

Robert McCoy is director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

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