Transcripts

Groundbreaking NASA Mission Studies Space Weather

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And this week we're bringing you a show that's become an annual favorite around here. We call it Feeling The Heat, always an appropriate theme this time of year when temperatures around D.C. can soar well into the 80s, 90s, even the hundreds. In fact, this July was the second hottest in the history of Washington. July 2011 was the first.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:31
But just to give you an idea of last month's fiery factor, we set the record with 16 days where the mercury shot past 95 degrees and seven days where it skyrocketed past 100. We tied with the sultry year of 1930 for the most consecutive 100-plus degree days. And the way things stand right now, 2012 is shaping up to be D.C.'s warmest year on record.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:01:04
So with plenty of sweat-breaking weather no doubt still ahead of us, for the next hour we're going to bring on the heat Metro Connection style. We'll hear the latest breakthroughs in fire research at the University of Maryland. We'll get tips and tricks on how to make your garden grow beneath that sizzling sun. And we'll talk with federal workers who are feeling the heat as the nation debates how to create a smaller, more efficient federal government.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:01:36
But first, we'll consider the heat of a spot roughly 93 million miles from here, the sun. And the hottest part of the sun is its center, which is at least 10 million degrees Kelvin. Just how hot is 10 million degrees Kelvin? Well imagine boiling water okay. Now imagine something 30,000 times hotter than that.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:02:02
So, yeah, we're talking major hotness on that star of ours. And on August 23rd, NASA is launching the second mission in its Living With A Star program, which aims to improve our understanding of the sun, and how it affects us humans in space and on Earth. The upcoming launch will focus on space weather, which David Sibeck, a mission scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD defines as.

MR. DAVID SIBECK

00:02:25
The set of effects that happen in space that can affect humans and their technology in space.

SHEIR

00:02:31
So it's not like we're thinking tornados, storms, rainstorms, snowstorms just in space, it's not that kind of weather

SIBECK

00:02:37
Well we use the same kind of terminology. We have storms in space, but they're caused by disturbances coming out from the sun. Big blobs of charged plasma that can envelop spacecraft and cause short circuits and other effects in those spacecraft.

SHEIR

00:02:52
Now, this charged plasma Sibeck talks about, it actually dominates interplanetary space. In fact, 99 percent of the universe is made up of this electrified gas. And immediately surrounding our planet.

SIBECK

00:03:04
At distances of about one earth radii above the earth to five earth radii above the Earth.

SHEIR

00:03:10
We have two giant rings of highly-radioactive plasma. They're called the Van Allen Radiation Belts, named for the late space scientist James Van Allen.

SIBECK

00:03:19
Professor Van Allen and his colleagues at the University of Iowa were among the first to launch rockets into space. The rockets carried Geiger counters. But what they found was that Geiger counters suddenly stopped working at a certain height.

SHEIR

00:03:32
David Sibeck says there were only two possible explanations. One...

SIBECK

00:03:36
The Geiger counters had broken.

SHEIR

00:03:37
Or two...

SIBECK

00:03:38
The space was so radioactive that it was overflowing and overwhelming the Geiger counters.

SHEIR

00:03:43
Number two eventually won out, because seriously these belts are extremely radioactive. So much so that they actually emit these crazy sounds. Professor Donald Gurnett, also of the University of Iowa, recorded and named some of these radio waves. And David Sibeck and I listened to a few like "Earth Chorus," "Earth Proton Whistlers," and "Earth Multihop Whistlers."

MR. DONALD GURNETT

00:04:18
Those are called whistlers because you hear the falling sound of the whistle, because the high-frequency ones travel faster and the low-frequency ones follow along.

SHEIR

00:04:27
Sounds like I'm in a rainforest you know, like there are birds everywhere.

GURNETT

00:04:31
That's exactly the right impression to have, because the very first people to hear these sounds in the 1920s began to call them things like chorus, or morning chorus, the sounds you'd hear from a forest in the morning when you wake up and hear the birds.

SHEIR

00:04:46
Sibeck says the upcoming NASA mission not only will better our understanding of the radiation belts, but of space weather, and our ability to predict it. And that's a good thing, because not only can space weather screw up instruments and astronauts in space, it can mess up stuff on Earth, too. Like, for instance...

SIBECK

00:05:02
Communications on Earth. It affects the Earth's ionosphere and just can shut out radio transmission.

SHEIR

00:05:09
So, cell phone signals and short-wave radio broadcasts can go haywire; even airplane communications can go on the fritz. And the reason NASA is launching RBSP this year is because next year's space weather could be the most extreme we've seen in a while.

SIBECK

00:05:23
Next year will be the peak of the solar cycle, the 11-year solar cycle. We expect the most intense activity from the sun. These explosions on the sun sending out enormous blobs of plasma, of charged particle, battering the earth's magnetic field, shaking it up. It's this shaking up and driving it that cause these effects in the radiation belts.

SHEIR

00:05:42
As for how that'll affect life here on earth, well, get this. Down here in Washington, D.C., we may be able to view the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights.

SIBECK

00:05:52
This will be the best time in the solar cycle for it to happen. It has happened in the past 11 years ago.

SHEIR

00:05:57
Though farther north, the effects may be more severe.

SIBECK

00:06:01
In the past, there have been surges in electrical power lines that have blown out transformers and caused massive blackouts.

SHEIR

00:06:08
So again, Sibeck says, the RBSP mission could not come at a better time. Now as for what the $650 million mission actually entails.

SIBECK

00:06:16
On August 23, at 4:00 a.m. at Cape Kennedy, NASA will launch two radiation-belt storm probe satellites on a single Atlas 5 rocket that will carry them up a distance of about a tenth of the way to the moon.

SHEIR

00:06:31
In other words, to the heart of the earth's radiation belts. The satellites were built by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. And as these twin discs spin away from the rocket, their instruments will measure those dangerous, whistling particles.

SIBECK

00:06:44
From the lowest energies to the highest energies.

SHEIR

00:06:46
So we can finally understand...

SIBECK

00:06:48
The complete environment around the Earth.

SHEIR

00:06:50
The satellites are expected to send back measurements for two years. And as they do, David Sibeck hopes to answer questions that have plagued him and his colleagues for years. Like, where do the radiation belts' dangerous, energetic particles come from?

SIBECK

00:07:04
Where do they move to?

SHEIR

00:07:05
How do they move around?

SIBECK

00:07:05
Where would you find them on any given day?

SHEIR

00:07:08
And finally...

SIBECK

00:07:08
What removes them? Because the radiation belts, the intensity of particles, rises and falls over the course of an hour, over the course of a day, over the course of a month.

SHEIR

00:07:18
David Sibeck says answering these questions would be a defining moment for him, and for all of us really, because by understanding more about space weather and radiation belts, we could understand more about the entire universe. And we can thank our lucky stars for that.

SHEIR

00:07:45
For more on the radiation belt storm probes mission and NASA's Living With A Star program and to hear more of those amazing chirping and whistling sounds made by the radiation belts, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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