LOGAN, Utah (ABC4) – On Jan. 15 a submarine volcano erupted 65 kilometers north of the Tongan Island of Tongatapu. The eruption was heard from Australia to Alaska — with a shockwave from the blast traveling 300 meters per second into the atmosphere.
NASA says the shockwave contained giant plumes of gases, water vapor, and dust. A camera made in Utah captured it all — leading NASA to discover that the volcanic eruption has reached space.
Back in 2019, NASA launched a science instrument with a camera onboard built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL), a nonprofit government contractor owned by Utah State University.
“Launched in October 2019 ICON is helping scientists better understand how space weather interacts with phenomena on the Earth such as the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai volcanic eruption,” said Alan Thurgood, SDL’s director of Civil and Commercial Space. “SDL is proud to have supplied enabling technology for NASA’s ICON mission, helping scientists to learn more about this relatively little-understood region at the edge of our atmosphere. The dedicated employees of SDL are hard at work on the forthcoming Atmospheric Waves Experiment, which will further enhance knowledge of the important phenomena that can affect everyday activities on Earth.
NASA was looking to further investigate how phenomena on earth, such as volcanic eruptions, winds rushing upward over mountain ranges, or large thunderstorms, affect space weather.
SDL developed cameras in two of the primary instruments onboard NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer Satellite, otherwise known as ICON.
ICON’s data helped scientists to determine that the volcanic eruption’s effects produced winds up to 724 kilometers per hour and unusual electric currents in the ionosphere.
The ionosphere is the region of the earth’s atmosphere from about 80 to 1,000 kilometers in altitude where space weather and earth’s weather merge. Scientists have discovered that the effects of earth’s weather play a role in space weather.
Experts say anomalies in space weather can have consequences for human space missions as well as satellites that provide crucial applications for communications, banking, navigation, weather forecasting, and more.
NASA also plans to launch their Atmospheric Waves Experiment (AWE) in 2023, which is led by USU Physics, Professor Michael J. Taylor.
AWE will fly on the international space station to study atmospheric gravity waves in Earth’s atmosphere to help scientists gain a deeper knowledge of the connections caused by climate systems through our atmosphere and between the atmosphere and space.
Aside from providing cameras, SDL is also providing overall mission management, including project management, systems engineering, safety and mission assurance, and mission operations for AWE.