NASA Strengthens Efforts Led by Boston University

The DRIVE BU SHIELD Science Center has won a new major grant from NASA.

Photo: SHIELD Science Center Boston University Led (Solar Wind with Hydrogen Ion Exchange and Large-Scale Dynamics) The DRIVE Science Center leads new work in the Sun’s atmosphere, the magnetic “force field” that protects life on Earth from devastating cosmic rays.
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Credit: Image courtesy of Merav Opher, et al. The

A Boston University-led team that pioneered a major advance in our understanding of the bubble that protects the solar system — and all life on Earth — has won a major new grant from NASA. The Science Center DRIVE SHIELD (Solar Wind with Hydrogen Ion Exchange and Large Scale Dynamics) has been awarded a new five-year grant to further advance its breakthrough work in heliophysics, studying how the Sun affects and shapes the Solar System. The funding will also support the team’s efforts to diversify the field of space physics.

Founded in 2020, the center won funding as part of NASA’s DRIVE (Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, Educate) Science Centers program. In the first phase of the program, the space agency supported nine research groups; That has now been reduced to just three — BU, Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University — for phase two. Each of the centers is described by NASA as a center for innovation in solar and space sciences: “These high-performance teams address cutting-edge scientific questions, support NASA’s mission, and advance solar and space sciences,” said Nicola Fox, director of the Solar Physics Division, in a press release.

“The competition in the past two years has been fierce,” says Merav Ofir, professor of astronomy in the Boston University School of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator at the SHIELD DRIVE Science Center. “Each of the original nine is a power in itself. It’s a huge deal.”

During the first phase of the program, Ophir and her team used compelling computer simulations generated from observable data and theoretical physics to explain the physical mechanisms behind a new paradigm of the heliosphere, the protective bubble that protects life on Earth from the devastating cosmic rays emitted by supernovae.

Previous models described the heliosphere as shaped like a comet, but the SHIELD model pushed against that with the idea that it looked like a croissant. Ophir’s multi-institutional team of 40 astrophysicists – drawn from dozens of institutions, including MIT, the University of Michigan, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Princeton University – were able to trace shape back to neutral hydrogen molecules, which cause instability in incoming planes. From the sun that forms the heliosphere. In turn, the instability can cause a disturbance in the solar wind – or parallel plasma – coming from the Sun, bending the heliosphere into a shape resembling a popular pastry.

Hooked on the solar envelope

For Uber, the opportunity to continue this business is a dream come true. She’s been gazing at the stars practically since birth, as she and her twin sister have looked to their father, Ruven Over, Brazil’s leading astrophysicist and cosmologist for more than three decades. But while most space physicists focus their attention on magnetic fields and space weather, Ophir has found herself addicted to the heliosphere.

“We are understanding more and more the importance of the heliosphere to life on Earth, and what the climate was like on Earth as well,” Ophir says. “So far, the heliosphere has not been a center of habitable studies.”

While these and other discoveries are important to Uber, they are also excited by the diversity side of the DRIVE program. Ofer – a woman, an immigrant from Israel through Brazil, and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community – has overcome many obstacles throughout her career. In interviews and conferences, she’s said she’s open about feeling lonely for being part of an underrepresented group in astrophysics, her ability to work through it, and her desire to support others.

“I am one of the only theorists in this field,” says Over, who is also the only woman to lead one of the three second stage centers. “I want to try to reach the people who are falling through the cracks, because they are not the right sense or [because of] their gender or they are immigrants. We can collect it and cuddle it, and I can still hear how our access has affected so many people. The challenge in Phase Two is to continue this momentum.”

SHIELD’s outreach program, which aims to help aspiring astrophysicists find the community and receive the guidance needed to bring their unique voices to the field, will be directed in phase two by Sanlyn Buxner, senior education and communications specialist and chief scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. . It will include webinars, testimonials, mentoring, and networking opportunities.

In the questions and answers below, Ophir discusses the importance of this outreach, the diversification of her field, and how she hopes the center will advance our understanding of the solar system.

Q&A with Merav Over

Now that you’ve moved on to stage two – and this stage will take a little longer – I’m sure there’s a lot you want to achieve. What is one of the main things SHIELD will look at?

Ophir: We found that there is a contradiction between the two main models of the heliosphere [by BU and the Russian Academy of Sciences] and notes. So, why is it sexy? This means that at the moment, what we understand from the heliosphere, there is a missing source of energy – we don’t know what it is. This means that something inside the heliosphere is producing energy. One of the main goals of the second phase will be to bridge that gap between observations and models.

What will success look like for SHIELD in the near future?

The goal of SHIELD is to create a digital twin of the heliosphere, a comprehensive, self-consistent global model that annotates data from all relevant data in situ and remote observations. This model will allow for a better future exploration of the solar system, and tell us more about how the solar and local interstellar medium is changing. [the gas cloud our solar system is moving through] Conditions affect life on Earth – and may aid efforts to find other life in the galaxy.

What makes this research important?

So far, the community has focused on how the heliosphere filters cosmic rays. We know that there is a relationship between the amount of cosmic rays or ultraviolet rays that create life. One of the main goals of the second stage is to keep pressing the pedal on the idea of ​​a habitable atmosphere. And I think that’s the connection that NASA loved — that we’re not just talking to ourselves, with the space physics community, we’re reaching out to other communities like astrophysics, biology, and trying to figure out, is there an impact on climate?

And this business is also related to space tourism, right?

Yes, NASA loved that piece. At the end we will have the radiation intensity map. The number one danger to astronauts on trips of more than three years is radiation from cosmic rays. Using the radiation map, when we try to colonize Mars and the Moon, we can tell how bad it is. It is critical.

And of course, as you open up new horizons in science, your plan is to break down barriers when it comes to diversity.

We need to confer empathy as a universal value. I think the awareness we made in the first stage – and I hope to carry over to the second stage – was weak, showing weakness while doing scientific work. This is unique.

We’re going to make a scientific breakthrough, we’re going to make an excellent science. But we wouldn’t do it the way science usually does: realism, type A, top-down. I don’t want to become a leader like that. I want the group and the people around me to feel the heart of the big dream. It’s a new way of trying to say, “Okay, you can be empathetic, you can be open and vulnerable and do incredible science. You don’t need to be this old school and ‘I know everything.'”

When I go to conferences, I must arm myself as if I were going to war. Every slightly sensitive person knows that they have to arm themselves. But when I give speeches at conferences, and as I advance in my career, I try to be vulnerable and true to who I am, and show them that you can be that and that’s okay. But you still look around, and the science is done by people like, “I’m going to prove you wrong,” and that’s the very manly kind. But you don’t have to be like that. This is not just for women. I have a lot of sensitive men who come up to me and say, “Thank you, I can never show feelings.” It is a human thing. So, this is a huge hack in itself; I think what we’re doing is really transformative.