West Point Experts Prepare For Launch To Study Space Weather

By Jorge GarciaApril 6, 2023

The aurora borealis flows undulatingly with its brilliant colors across the night sky, as a distortion emerges that disrupts the precision of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS).
1 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The aurora borealis flows undulatingly with its brilliant colors across the night sky, as a distortion emerges that disrupts the precision of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). (Photo Credit: NASA) VIEW ORIGINAL
Class of 2025 Cadet Larry Bolt preparing for his presentation on sounding rockets research on March 22 at Bartlett Hall.
2 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Class of 2025 Cadet Larry Bolt preparing for his presentation on sounding rockets research on March 22 at Bartlett Hall. (Photo Credit: Jorge Garcia USMA PAO) VIEW ORIGINAL
Capt. Nicholas Deschenes, an instructor at the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering giving an opening speech about West Point's sounding rockets/ space weather research before introducing Dr. Robert Pfaff, a NASA program scientist for sounding rockets, on March 22 at Bartlett Hall.
3 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Capt. Nicholas Deschenes, an instructor at the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering giving an opening speech about West Point's sounding rockets/ space weather research before introducing Dr. Robert Pfaff, a NASA program scientist for sounding rockets, on March 22 at Bartlett Hall. (Photo Credit: Jorge Garcia/ USMA PAO.) VIEW ORIGINAL
Dr. Robert Pfaff, a NASA program scientist for sounding rockets, visited West Point, on March 22, with his colleague Mr. Joshua Yacobucci, a NASA technology manager, to provide insight, observe Bolt's presentation of the project, and guide the team in jumpstarting the program.
4 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Dr. Robert Pfaff, a NASA program scientist for sounding rockets, visited West Point, on March 22, with his colleague Mr. Joshua Yacobucci, a NASA technology manager, to provide insight, observe Bolt's presentation of the project, and guide the team in jumpstarting the program. (Photo Credit: Jorge Garcia/ USMA PAO) VIEW ORIGINAL
Dr. Robert Pfaff, a NASA program scientist for sounding rockets, visited West Point, on March 22, with his colleague Mr. Joshua Yacobucci, a NASA technology manager, to provide insight, observe Bolt's presentation of the project, and guide the team in jumpstarting the program.
5 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Dr. Robert Pfaff, a NASA program scientist for sounding rockets, visited West Point, on March 22, with his colleague Mr. Joshua Yacobucci, a NASA technology manager, to provide insight, observe Bolt's presentation of the project, and guide the team in jumpstarting the program. (Photo Credit: Jorge Garcia/ USMA PAO) VIEW ORIGINAL
Cadets listening to Dr. Robert Pfaff, a NASA program scientist for sounding rockets, as he gives a presentation on sounding rockets research conducted at NASA.
6 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Cadets listening to Dr. Robert Pfaff, a NASA program scientist for sounding rockets, as he gives a presentation on sounding rockets research conducted at NASA. (Photo Credit: Jorge Garcia/ USMA PAO.) VIEW ORIGINAL

With more than 20,000 active-duty troops in Alaska and more service members operating at Thule Air Base in Greenland, a snowstorm or below-freezing temperatures are not the only weather forecasts the Army, Air Force, and Space Force have to contend with.

Solar energetic particles and radio blackouts caused by the sun are just a few types of space weather patterns that can disrupt how service members perform in the field.

Moreover, a forecast of space weather in the form of the enchanting aurora borealis can dramatically hinder a military operation.

As the incandescent stream flows undulatingly with its brilliant colors across the night sky, a distortion emerges that disrupts the precision of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS).

"We still use global positioning systems or the GNSS to get our positioning solutions so we know where we are operating across the entire Department of Defense," said Capt. Nicholas Deschenes, an instructor at the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering. "What we don't understand well is how these auroral effects, which is the ionosphere and the changing plasma densities within it, affect the precision of those GNSS positioning solutions."

Realizing this issue, West Point is hard at work conducting meticulous research on the aurora's effects on military communications technology used in operational fields.

Class of 2023 Cadet Jacob Willis and Class of 2025 Cadet Larry Bolt are working with Deschenes and Col. Diana Loucks, an academy professor who serves as the director of advanced physics in the Department of PANE, and members of the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering, to develop U.S. Military Academy rockets with an attached sensor. The sensor, also known as the Langmuir Probe, describes the plasma characteristics of the effects of aurora scintillation in Alaska to understand how it affects GNSS.

"Scintillation is the thing that is really causing these distortions in those signals. The density of the plasma can either have a phase change or an amplitude simulation effect that will diminish that signal,” Deschenes said. “We want to be able to not only understand it, but also predict it and if we can do that, then we can (identify and defend against the distortion before it affects us).”

Loucks oversees the project as the principal investigator researching how space weather distorts the precision of GNSS positioning solutions in higher latitudes.

Under the tutelage of Deschenes and Loucks, Willis wrote a paper detailing the correlation of the aurora's motion in conjunction with plasma energy drifting across the sky in Earth's ionosphere, Deschenes said.

"Willis is doing this by using ‘All-Sky Imagery,’ data technology and referencing that with data collected from the Poker Flat Incoherent Scatter Radar (PFISR) owned by the University of Alaska – Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute at Poker Flat Research Range, Alaska," Deschenes said. "One of the problems is that the All-Sky Imagery does not give a good estimate of the altitude at which the auroral events are occurring. The other problem is when radar fundamentally collects information, it inherently distorts the sample it is trying to collect."

In other words, the energy from the radar innately affects how the plasma behaves, but its measurements are only partially reliable.

"For example, It's like I'm talking to you. You hear what I have to say and then reply in another language and I don't understand it very well. So that's what’s happening with the radar in a sense when it reads the energy in the ionosphere, and it's not that we don't really understand it, it’s just understanding the readings comes with error, like with any translation," Deschenes said.

Bolt is conducting the research needed to launch a USMA rocket into the ionosphere with a Langmuir probe attached to collect data and counter the distortion that creates the errors. The probe collects data passively without sending energy and measures the plasma effects in real time. This will allow the team to see how they can correlate the probe information they gather with radar data and then supplement them together in order to get more accurate and predictable GNSS positioning solutions.

Dr. Robert Pfaff, a NASA program scientist for sounding rockets, visited West Point, on March 22, with his colleague Mr. Joshua Yacobucci, a NASA technology manager, to provide insight, observe Bolt's presentation of the project, and guide the team in jumpstarting the program.

"Teaching the cadets how to be space savvy is great! I was watching them throughout the day conduct their research and troubleshoot issues and I was very impressed with that," Pfaff said. "Space is fascinating from a scientific standpoint. People generally think that space is empty, but there is a lot going on and that's why cadets need to know about space and its weather effects. From what I and (Yacobucci) observed from Bolt's presentation, I think they're on the right track here."

For several years, the concept for the project has been brewing, with multiple innovative ideas from West Point's subject matter experts paralleling one another to create an actionable plan.

"It all came together where they started having success a little bit more each year, and then all of the different research projects were happening in parallel. Last summer, I got to do a site visit up to the Poker Flat Research Range and saw the capabilities and the idea hit,” Loucks said. “Knowing what they have done in the past and witnessing some of the presentations about launching through the aurora, I started getting the notion that we could do this. Its way cool getting the SMEs and the West Point experts together to agree that this is possible."

Furthermore, cadets working in different scientific fields under the guidance of their instructors combine their efforts as well to make a collaborative vision a reality.

"The long-term goal is that USMA will eventually be able to launch rockets designed and built by cadets in the Civil and Mechanical Engineering's Space Engineering Applied Research/ Hypersonic Research Team with the probes designed and potentially developed by cadets in the PANE department to collect these measurements. Bolt is conducting a ‘feasibility-study’ to determine what are the requirements USMA needs to conduct this research," Deschenes explained.

Bolt will be heading up to Alaska this Summer for two-and-a-half weeks to determine what logistical requirements must be met to complete the project.

"When you think of the aurora, usually you're thinking about the least common denominator--pretty lights in the sky. Especially in terms of supporting the Army, It's about getting the common Soldier to be attentive and understand what they are dealing with when auroral events happen nearby," Bolt concluded. "If they're operating in arctic environments, don't simply look at the aurora borealis as pretty lights in the sky but as something that could affect your capabilities.”