EMU student receives award for research on the effect of space weather on Mars

Undergraduate Research Stimulus Award gives physics student opportunity to connect with NASA

by Leah Shutes, Published April 03, 2013

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When Ashley Taylor-Voss graduated with a double bachelor's degree in sociology and psychology in April 2012, one would think she was finished. Turns out, though, she had even more interests. She has returned to EMU for a degree in physics-and some cool opportunities many students only dream of.

Taylor-Voss is a recipient of the Undergraduate Research Stimulus Award, which is designed to facilitate research partnerships between undergraduates and Eastern faculty mentors. The Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs sponsors the awards.

Taylor-Voss' project, Global Model Simulations During Solar Flares and Dust Storms at Mars, was, according to her, a product of being in the right place at the right time. After a short time advising her for her major, physics professor Dave Pawlowski recruited her help with his own Mars research. She's focusing on how space weather affects the upper Martian atmosphere.

"Most of us tune in to sources of weather information to see what it's going to be like outside. We are pretty familiar with the idea of weather here on Earth, but a concept that often escapes public attention is that of space weather," says Taylor-Voss in her research proposal. "In the same manner as there is weather on Earth, there is also weather in space, and this space weather can affect other planets."

Mars is the focus of a lot of space research. According to Taylor-Voss, people historically tend to look for similarities between Mars and the Earth.

"People like Mars," says Taylor-Voss. "It's not a gas giant, and the conditions are friendly enough on the surface that we can land rovers there. In this way, Mars is more attainable than other planets."

Though Earth is closer to the sun than Mars is, one main focus of Taylor-Voss' research is seeing how solar activity affects Mars' atmosphere. The coolest part of her project, no doubt, is that she gets to operate a NASA supercomputer - from home. Using her own computer, she accesses and operates a 3D model of the Martian atmosphere to see how solar flares affect the behavior of particles.

"When solar winds and flares hit the Martian atmosphere, the result can be the sweeping of atmospheric particles away into space," she says. "This process is called 'atmospheric stripping.' Atmospheric stripping has played a role in creating Mars' thin atmosphere today, but one of the main questions is how this process compares to other processes that have eroded the atmosphere."

According to Taylor-Voss' research proposal, her project could contribute a few things to science. First, the ability to predict and understand changes in the Martian atmosphere will help augment the "safety and security of manmade satellites currently orbiting or scheduled to orbit Mars."

Second, knowing the history of Mars' atmosphere and weather conditions can help answer certain scientific questions, such as what happened to the water on Mars. This information could also be a glimpse into a potential future of the atmosphere here on Earth.

For now, she has a lot to think about. "I will like to see what we can learn about the dynamics involved in atmospheric changes such as what Mars has experienced. A better understanding of these processes can help answer the question of what happened to the water on Mars. And, if the water left Mars, could the same thing ever happen on Earth?"

Geoff Larcom



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