Twenty-five years ago, a massive burst of solar electrified gas, a coronal mass ejection, was released into space. The Earth passed through the burst, causing more than $10 million worth of damage to electrical equipment and leaving parts of the United States without power for nearly nine hours. This burst and others like it continue to threaten technology on Earth and have been an area of interest for years at NASA. Today, Colin Komar, a doctoral student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at West Virginia University, is examining the underlying process that allowed the massive burst to enter into Earth’s space environment.
During the process, called magnetic reconnection, magnetic fields are broken and reformed. The result? Energy in the magnetic fields is quickly released, causing the electrified gas to heat up and move faster. Understanding where magnetic reconnection occurs will help satellite missions studying magnetic reconnection and let scientists relay commands to satellites on the best times to collect data based on solar conditions.
Magnetic reconnection is the first step in a long chain of events that led to the electrical damage seen in the coronal mass ejection event 25 years ago.
“As satellites go around in their orbits, they’re not always collecting data. The hope is that we can develop a model of when and where reconnection is occurring,” Komar said. “The goal is to eventually be able to say— alright, the sun is acting like this, so we need to make contingency plans for ground-based electronics because there is a 90-percent chance they’ll get disrupted at this time.”
Last spring, Komar was awarded first prize in the magnetospheric category of the 2013 NASA Community Coordinated Modeling Center Student Research Contest, a nationwide award for outstanding research using NASA computational resources. Over a three-year period Komar has run a series of simulations of different magnetic field conditions to study magnetic reconnection at Earth.
Komar’s collaborators on the research include John Dorelli and Alex Glocer, civil servants at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; and Masha Kuznetsova, the director of NASA’s Community Coordinated Modeling Center. Komar’s faculty adviser for the project is Paul Cassak, associate professor in the WVU Department of Physics and Astronomy.
For more information, contact Colin Komar at email@example.com.