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August 30, 2009

APL Part of International Team Expanding Space Weather Radar Network

Electrical disturbances in our atmosphere can have significant impacts—disrupting communications, knocking out electrical power grids, damaging satellites, even affecting astronauts. APL space weather researchers are helping expand a global radar system—the Super Dual Auroral Radar Network, or SuperDARN—that has been detecting those electrical disturbances for more than a decade.

The SuperDARN expansion project is scheduled for completion in 2012. It will add an array of mid-latitude radars to capture data on the drifting plasmas in our ionosphere that the network's existing high-latitude radars miss when strong solar storms stretch to lower latitudes.

SuperDARNThe SuperDARN network consists of 21 radar sites in 8 countries and Antarctica. Fourteen northern sites, stretching from Finland, through Canada, to Japan, monitor the ionosphere above the North Pole, and seven southern sites arrayed around and on Antarctica observe events above the South Pole. Four new radar pairs will be built—one pair per year—in Kansas, Oregon, the Aleutian Islands, and the Azores. Preliminary work has begun at the Kansas site, and construction of the towers and antennas is scheduled to begin in early August of 2009. The Kapuskasing SuperDARN radar in Canada is one of three radars collaboratively managed by APL and Virginia Tech. (fix to position under photo)

"With expanded radar coverage stretching from Eastern Asia to Europe and from Kansas to the Magnetic North Pole, we will better understand the near-Earth space environment, which will help us better understand and predict the effects of solar storms on space- and ground-based systems," says E. Talaat of the Space Department, who is APL's SuperDARN principal investigator and science lead. The SuperDARN project began at APL, and the mid-latitude expansion is a collaborative effort between the Lab and Virginia Tech, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Dartmouth College.

"We're partnering with the other institutions on the design and construction of the new radars, and APL is providing and installing all related software," Talaat says. APL built and manages the Wallops Island radar in Virginia, the first mid-latitude radar constructed, and collaborates with Virginia Tech on three other existing radars located in Goose Bay and Kapuskasing in Canada, and in Blackstone,VA.

APL is the central data collection and distribution site and maintains the software for radar operation and data analysis, as well as the project's website. The site archives several products for the atmospheric science community, including real-time radar displays and convection maps, and time-series and field-of-view measurements. The software and website are maintained by the Space Department's R. Barnes, the SuperDARN software engineer since 1997.

The radars at each SuperDARN site are virtually identical, with some minor differences in antenna design and accommodations for site conditions. Each site has two arrays of 50-foot-tall towers with one array holding 16 primary antennas and the other holding four interferometer antennas. The antennas function as a single radar with beams scanning a 53-deg sector. They operate 24/7, autonomously transmitting five gigabytes of data daily to APL. From there, the data are routed to the other principal investigator institutions.

SuperDARN data are being used in conjunction with data from the TIMED (Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics) spacecraft (designed, built, and operated for NASA by the APL) to study heatin

g in the thermosphere and for auroral studies. The SuperDARN project is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation.

map SuperDARN coverage

On this map of the Northern Hemisphere, yellow, green, and blue "beams" show current SuperDARN coverage of the ionosphere. Red indicates coverage that will be provided by a new mid-latitude chain.