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Steve McGregor, UT Dallas
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Forecasting Weather in Space is Goal of UT Dallas Experiment
$10 Million Grant to Fund Five-Year Investigation for NASA, Air Force

RICHARDSON, Texas (August 13, 2001) - If you think predicting the probability of rain tomorrow is a daunting task for most TV weather forecasters, imagine the complexity of determining the time, place and duration of the next storm in outer space. That’s the goal of a five-year, $10 million investigation to be conducted by The University of Texas at Dallas for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Air Force.

UT Dallas faculty and researchers are building an instrument package that will be launched into space in 2003 aboard an Air Force unmanned rocket. It will be carried on a research satellite into orbit above the equator, collecting electrically charged particles called ions and neutral gas. These particles are caught up in large areas of turbulence much like storms in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The UT Dallas project -- known as the “Coupled Ion Neutyral Dynamics Investigation,” or by its acronym, “CINDI” - is funded by a grant from NASA, with many of the scientific findings applied to Air Force operational requirements.

“Space is not a placid vacuum, but has weather not dissimilar to that on earth,” said Roderick A. Heelis, professor of physics and director of the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences at UT Dallas. “However, instead of rain, storms in space involve electrically-charged particles that move around in the equivalent of hurricanes and tornadoes.

“We want to be able to predict when and where these areas of instability will occur, as well as their intensity and duration, just as you would predict weather on earth.”

The Air Force has a keen interest in such forecasting due to the potentially negative effects of instabilities on the service’s radio communications and the operations of its satellites and radar. The investigation is part of the Air Force’s Communications/Navigation Outage Forecast System project.

According to Heelis, the focus of the investigation is the geospace environment above the earth’s equatorial regions because storms in these areas are not driven directly by solar activity, a common source of storms elsewhere in space.

“In other parts of space, it is fairly straightforward to connect the effects of solar activity on radio communications,” said Heelis. “However, above the equator, a causal relationship is not nearly so clear. CINDI is designed to help us better understand the source of these storms, and well as to develop ways to predict their behavior.”

The 20-pound package of instruments, consisting of an array of sensors and other electronic equipment, is being fabricated in Heelis’ UT Dallas laboratory with the help of co-investigator Gregory Earle, associate professor of physics at UT Dallas. The project’s other co-investigator is Paul Mahaffey of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

CINDI is scheduled to be launched in the fall of 2003. Heelis expects its operational phase to last one year, followed by another year of data interpretation.

The $10 million NASA grant is one of the largest ever won by UT Dallas' space sciences program, Heelis said.

About UT Dallas

The University of Texas at Dallas, located at the convergence of Richardson, Plano and Dallas in the heart of the complex of major multinational technology corporations known as the Telecom Corridor, enrolls approximately 6,500 undergraduate and 4,500 graduate students. The school’s freshman class traditionally stands at the forefront of Texas state universities in terms of average SAT scores. The university offers a broad assortment of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs. For additional information about UT Dallas, please visit the university’s web site at

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This page last updated
October 30, 2001