Physicist's Team Recognized

01/20/2008
By From the Boston Globe

By Cindy Cantrell

For years, scientists have wondered how "killer" electrons in space can possess such high energy that they become capable of crippling orbiting satellites and posing a radiation risk to astronauts. A team of physicists led by University of Massachusetts at Lowell physicist Qiugang Zong is being recognized for discovering the answer last year.

Zong, assistant professor in the school's Center for Atmospheric Research, led the analysis of data from NASA and the European Space Agency's Cluster satellites - including information collected during an October 2003 geomagnetic storm that damaged more than 15 satellites. The impact of these "solar winds," in which high-speed, charged particles surge from the sun, triggers instabilities along Earth's magnetosphere that in turn create ultra-low-frequency electromagnetic waves - producing the high-speed electrons.

Zong's team was the first to measure their velocity, which can be accelerated up to 94 percent of the speed of light - or more than 280,000 kilometers per second.

The team's findings - coauthored by the research center's codirector Paul Song of Andover and research assistant Xuzhi Zhou of Lowell - were published in the June 2007 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. The discovery was also ranked No. 37 out of the top 100 science stories of 2007 by Discover magazine.

According to Zong, the information will be used to safeguard satellites and protect astronauts aboard space shuttles and the International Space Station. Exposure to electrons - which can occur, for example, during a space walk - can provide the radiation equivalent of five chest X-rays.

"I'm excited and happy, because physics doesn't usually have this kind of public interest," said Zong, who lives in Jamaica Plain. "I hope the work we've done is helpful."