Prof. joins global research initiative
By Leslie Ye
Published on Monday, November 29, 2010
A scientific mystery that could uncover new information about the atmospheres on other planets and Earth’s own atmosphere will be investigated by a new project that has brought researchers from around the country, including Dartmouth, to the Andoya Rocket Range in Andenes, Norway.
The Rocket Experiment for Neutral Upwelling, or RENU, will study the relationship between atomic oxygen and solar wind, according to Kristina Lynch, professor of physics and astronomy at the College. Lynch is the lead researcher of Dartmouth’s portion of RENU.
A rocket will be launched into the atmosphere to investigate why ionized oxygen gas — normally too heavy to overcome the force of gravity — has been detected above the Earth’s atmosphere, Lynch said in an e-mail to The Dartmouth.
RENU will travel into the atmosphere on a Black Brant XII sounding rocket, which will be launched between Nov. 28 and Dec. 12, according to a NASA press release. The rocket has been assembled, tested and brought to the launch site, according to Lynch, although there have been technical issues which may set the researchers’ schedule back by around a day.
Dartmouth researchers contributed a set of instruments to the project designed to gather information about electrons and ions found in the atmosphere. Following the launch, they will also analyze the data gathered from the experiment, Lynch wrote in an e-mail.
Marc Lessard, who received his doctorate in physics from Dartmouth in 1998 and is now an associate professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire, is RENU’s principal investigator.
The RENU team includes researchers from Dartmouth; UNH; the University of Maryland, College Park; Cornell University; NASA; the Air Force Academy; the Aerospace Corporation and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, according to the press release.
Lynch is assisted by Kevin Rhoads and David Collins, research engineers at the College; Dwayne Adams, who works in the College machine shop; Philip Fernandes, a second-year graduate student in physics; and Jon Guinther ’13. Other undergraduates, faculty and staff did much of the construction, according to Rhoads.
The findings from RENU will hopefully reveal why ionized oxygen gas is currently in the “near-Earth space region of the Earth, which is above the atmosphere but not quite in the solar wind,” Lynch said.
Solar wind is the name for the flow of charged particles released by the sun into the solar system.
The ionized oxygen gas is too heavy to rise to its current height on its own and is not a product of solar wind, which contains little or no oxygen, according to Lynch. Researchers concluded that its source must be the upper atmosphere, with energy from solar wind providing the oxygen with the “lift” it needs to rise to its present heights. The RENU team hopes to discover how the initially neutral upper atmosphere gas becomes heated, ionized and lifted.
Previous research on ionized oxygen was done by Kristen Frederick-Frost GR’06 on the rocket experiment “Sersio,” which studied only the presence of ionized oxygen gas, according to Lynch.
RENU will study the source of the ionized gases as well, according to Lynch.
“This new rocket includes instrumentation from The Aerospace Corporation, which also looks directly at the neutral gases,” Lynch said.
The findings from the RENU project can help researchers in the future more fully comprehend interactions within and among atmospheres, according to Lynch.
“We’d like to better understand the coupling of the upper atmosphere to the space environment just outside it,” Lynch said. “Ultimately, this should help us in our understanding of atmosphere on other planets, as well as the evolution and structure of our own atmosphere.”