Deploying a Neutron Monitor to Maui to Improve Space Weather Observation

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PC: University of Hawaii

A four-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation will fund a project to build a space weather station center on the UH Mānoa campus and deploy a neutron monitor on Maui.

The project led by the University of Hawaii at Mānoa is designed to better predict and understand weather in space.

UH Mānoa’s Department of Physics and Astronomy will receive $1.2 million of the $2.5 million grant. UH Mānoa Associate Professor Veronica Bindi, the project’s principal investigator, said her team was collaborating with researchers from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Arizona.

The project will measure the most powerful particles emitted by the Sun, which are solar energetic particles and solar neutron particles. These particles can pose a risk to astronauts and lead to a major failure of electronics in space, such as satellites, and technologies used in space travel by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, according to UH .

On Earth, solar storms can affect the power grid and disrupt radio communications.

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This project will help better monitor solar particles and develop warning systems to advance our predictions of space weather hazards so astronauts are safe during space missions. Bindi added that the station and neutron monitor will take about three years to build and will be built just in time for our next “solar maximum”, which is expected in 2025 or 2026.

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“Here in the field, before doing an activity like hiking or surfing, we want to know the weather. The same goes for space mission planning,” Bindi said. “You want to know the weather is going to be nice, which means we’re not going to have too many particles coming towards our astronauts, instruments and space assets.”

Bindi is working with UH’s Institute of Astronomy (IfA) to identify a high-altitude site within existing IfA facilities on Maui and obtain the necessary approvals and permits to place a neutron monitor, which has approximately the size of a shipping container.

According to Bindi, the Haleakalā site was chosen because more particles will be captured the higher the monitor is above sea level. The monitor will be one of 50 worldwide that will increase coverage to more areas of the world.

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A data processing center will also be established on the UH Mānoa campus to serve as a hub for researchers to work and organize data. They will combine data collected on Haleakalā, with energetic particle data from the International Space Station‘s Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, and display their results to the public in real time.

As Principal Investigator, Bindi and UH Mānoa will manage the entire project and be involved in all aspects of its objectives. The University of New Hampshire will support the construction of the neutron monitor, with its initial data taking, calibration and data quality. The University of Arizona will work on theoretical models describing the propagation of particles from the Sun to the Earth, used to define our space weather results and forecasting capabilities.

This UH Mānoa award is one of seven awarded by the NSF nationwide as part of its first series of awards for Grand Challenges in Integrative Geospatial Science: Advancing National Space Weather Expertise and Research towards the societal resilience program.

These projects focus on two areas of research – solar and space physics, and space weather and climate – that are critical to advancing scientific discoveries and protecting the nation’s economy and security. According to the NSF, “ANSWERS offers a collaborative opportunity and a holistic approach to understanding the dynamic and integrated Sun-Earth system, as well as the causes of space weather and its effects from ‘sun to mud’.”

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