GPHI Director Jan Merka

Goddard Planetary Heliophysics Institute to receive up to $20 million from NASA over next five years

NASA has renewed its support for the Goddard Planetary Heliophysics Institute (GPHI), granting permission for a maximum of $20 million to be spent over the next five years. The institute is a joint venture of UMBC; the University of Maryland, College Park; and American University, and it was initially funded for $10 million over five years beginning in 2011. GPHI faculty focus on heliophysics research, which seeks to understand physical processes related to the Sun and interplanetary spaces in our solar system, such as how the magnetic field surrounding Earth (the “magnetosphere”) protects us from the solar wind.

The boost in funding is a sign that NASA “is happy with the way we have been managing the research projects,” says Jan Merka, GPHI director.

GPHI has grown significantly since its inception, especially in the last 18 months. The renewal will support further growth and allow the institute’s 20 research faculty to continue work on their ongoing projects.

In addition to supporting the work of research faculty, the new funding could also allow faculty to consider bringing graduate students on board. Beyond physics students, Merka says some projects might be a good fit for students in mathematics or information systems.

GPHI focuses on fundamental research, but “there are all kinds of applications we can’t even predict right now,” Merka explains. For example, there is potential for solar wind to become so strong that it damages our power grid. After solar eruptions, the solar wind, composed of high-energy particles, can travel from the Sun to Earth in only about 1.5 days. This window could translate to early warning of impending damage, but scientists aren’t yet good at predicting the path of a solar storm. It’s no easy decision to shut down international power grids in expectation of a solar wind surge, so being able to make accurate predictions is key.

The new funding will support research to improve space weather forecasting and other projects related to NASA science missions, such as the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, launched in 2015. MMS consists of four satellites orbiting Earth in tight formation and collecting data from more than 30 instruments about magnetospheric processes. The mission will improve understanding of solar flares, eruptions of solar material (“coronal mass ejections”), and how similar processes play out elsewhere in the universe.

The work is made easier because “we have great staff and administrative support here,” Merka notes, which allows researchers at GPHI to focus their energy on science.

“We are very proud of our successful partnership with NASA Goddard under the GPHI program to pursue collaborative research in solar-planetary sciences,” says Karl V. Steiner, vice president for research.  “I want to thank Dr. Merka for his outstanding leadership on this program, which is the foundation for this five-year renewal to synergistically foster new directions in research and technology in heliophysics.”

Image: Jan Merka at GPHI; photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.