LOGAN, Utah (ABC4) – Did you know outer space has “weather?” Not only does it, but Utah State University is helping NASA forecast what that “weather” might be.

USU’s Space Dynamics Laboratory has announced the successful completion of tests for NASA‘s Atmospheric Waves Experiment (AWE), a mission that will help scientists understand and, ultimately, forecast the vast space weather system around our planet.

AWE, planned for launch at the International Space Station, will study gravity waves in Earth’s atmosphere to “gain a deeper knowledge of the connections caused by climate systems throughout our atmosphere and between the atmosphere and space,” a press release states.

The experiment will reportedly involve looking directly down into Earth’s atmosphere to study how gravity waves travel through the upper atmosphere.

Why does this matter?

Satellites that enable communications, banking, navigation, entertainment, and many more applications can be disrupted by impacts from atmospheric gravity waves and from adverse space weather, the release states.

The data collected will help scientists determine the physics and characteristics of atmospheric gravity waves, and how terrestrial weather influences the ionosphere (where Earth’s atmosphere meets space), which can affect communication with satellites, the release states.

The mission is focused on gravity waves at altitudes between 50 and 500 kilometers, which scientists refer to as the “ionosphere-thermosphere-mesosphere system.” Space weather in this region, particularly in the ionosphere, can significantly disrupt space-based communication we rely on due to the high concentration of electrically charged particles, the release states.

In studying gravity waves in this region, scientists hope to understand more about how Earth’s weather influences the upper atmosphere.

So, what are atmospheric gravity waves?

They are “pulses of air” primarily formed by weather disturbances on Earth, such as strong thunderstorms, hurricanes, or winds rushing skyward over massive mountain ranges. The release states that they “eventually deposit their energy, like an ocean wave breaking on the beach, as they ripple upward into the ionosphere.”

AWE will reportedly scan Earth using an imaging radiometer, producing high-quality temperature maps of these waves.

New knowledge from AWE will help scientists “more accurately forecast the impact” on satellite communications from gravity waves and space weather, simultaneously allowing mission planners and satellite operators to plan contingencies, the release states.

“AWE is a highly sensitive, precise science instrument designed to be fitted on the International Space Station and operate in the harsh space environment. To ensure that AWE will survive launch turbulence and operate as designed once in space, SDL put the instrument through its paces on the ground,” said Burt Lamborn, AWE project manager at SDL.

The AWE instrument has gone through four types of testing, according to the release:

  • Electromagnetic Interference/Electromagnetic Compatibility: This type of testing ensures that the instrument does not produce or emit electromagnetic signals that could interfere with other equipment onboard the space station, and to make sure that interference from the station will likewise not impair AWE’s ability to produce data.
  • Vibration: This test is done to ensure the instrument can survive the “vibration-intense” launch into space. The assemblies were subjected to a shaker table that simulated the predicted launch vibration that AWE will experience.
  • Thermal Vacuum: This is done to demonstrate the performance and operation of the AWE instrument in a simulated flight environment. To do this, SDL scientists “thermal cycled” the instrument between hot and cold temperature extremes, ensuring it will survive the harsh space environment.
  • Calibration: SDL engineers performed a “full-system calibration” to make sure the instrument meets mission requirements, and to demonstrate its performance and limitations under operational conditions. Calibration also provides “the means to convert AWE’s raw instrument output to usable data that is traceable to known standards.”

For more information on USU’s Space Dynamics Lab, visit their website here.

Headquartered on Utah State University’s Innovation Campus in North Logan, UT, the Space Dynamics Laboratory is a nonprofit organization and a Department of Defense University Affiliated Research Center owned by USU. More than 1,000 dedicated SDL engineers, scientists, business professionals, and student employees solve technical challenges faced by the military, science community, and industry and support NASA’s vision to explore the secrets of the universe for the benefit of all.