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Prof. Bodo Reinisch, director of the UML Center for Atmospheric Research, has received a NASA award for his work on the Radio Plasma Imager (RPI). The instrument, designed to characterize plasma in Earth’s inner magnetosphere in the radio frequency range, was flown aboard the agency’s highly successful IMAGE spacecraft, which operated from 2000 to 2005.
Reinisch, who was the RPI’s principal investigator, and his team from the Center for Atmospheric Research, NASA’s Goddard and Marshall Space Flight Centers, Rice University and Stanford University were presented with a NASA Group Achievement Award at a ceremony in Greenbelt, Md. The group was cited “for pioneering advanced space-based radio sounding and scientific advances achieved through its innovative application to geospace science.”
“The IMAGE satellite was the first remote sensing, or imaging, mission that NASA had launched into the magnetosphere, in contrast to all previous missions that were based on in situ measurements,” says Reinisch. The magnetosphere, he explains, is the vast region surrounding Earth's atmosphere that is filled with space plasma, mainly electrons and positive hydrogen ions, and reaches from roughly 600 to 50,000 miles above Earth’s surface.
“Three different plasma-imaging techniques were used on IMAGE: neutral-atom imaging, ultraviolet imaging and radio imaging,” he says. Researchers at the UML Center built the RPI with a 10-watt transmitter and three orthogonal transmitting/receiving antennas to detect echoes from remote plasma structures. Two of the antennas were 1,500 feet long; the third one, along the spin axis, measured 60 feet.
“Such radio sounding and imaging technique had never before been done in the magnetosphere,” says Reinisch, “and when NASA awarded us the contract, public criticism from scientists at leading universities forced the agency to conduct a Non-Advocate Review of our proposed experiment. In my memory, such a step had never been taken before, but it showed how serious the opposition was to our technique. Fortunately, the NAR committee concluded that the RPI was a 'pioneering instrument and should be flown.' ”
IMAGE was launched in March 2000, with the UML payload onboard. The spacecraft collected a wealth of scientific data until December 2005, when its telemetry signal suddenly stopped. An estimated 60 publications in refereed journals and books have used the RPI data. “UMass Lowell researchers at the Center continue to hold NASA grants for the ongoing analysis of the RPI data,” says Reinisch.
“Because of our success with the RPI,” he says, “we’re now considered experts in radio sounding in space and, as a result, three years ago we teamed up with Stanford University to build a ‘wave-particle interaction’ payload for an Air Force Research Laboratory satellite mission into Earth’s radiation belt.” The satellite is currently scheduled for launch in 2009.
“UMass Lowell is currently funded with 3.3 million dollars for this project, with an additional 1.45 million expected this year,” he says. “With an 80-meter antenna, we want to launch very low frequency ߝ about 20 kilohertz ߝ radio waves into the radiation-belt plasma at an altitude of 4,000 miles in order to change the spiraling orbits of relativistic electrons that can pose a risk to astronauts and electronic equipment in orbit.”