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WVU physicist receives prestigious NSF CAREER Award

In the heat of the space race in 1958 between the United States and the Soviet Union, James Van Allen discovered Earth’s radiation belt. The belt is located at 500 to 60,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface and is populated with energetic “killer” electrons that create a hazardous environment for satellites and other spacecrafts operating within this zone.

Weichao Tu Headshot
Weichao Tu

While significant progress has been achieved in understanding the enhancement of relativistic electrons that create extreme space weather conditions, the sudden drop out of radiation belt electrons remains unsolved. 

Weichao Tu, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at West Virginia University, has been awarded the prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award to support her research in developing the first comprehensive model to simulate the mysterious dropout of the radiation belt electrons.

“Understanding the dropout will make a significant contribution to the physical modeling and reliable prediction of radiation belt dynamics,” Tu said. “The dynamics are of considerable practical importance due to their potential hazards to space systems.”

According to Tu, there are two places that electrons escape to. The electrons either travel along Earth’s magnetic field, precipitate into Earth’s atmosphere and cause disturbances such as the Aurora Borealis, or they travel in an outward direction, contacting the boundary between Earth and outer space and escaping Earth’s magnetosphere.

“Physicists are uncertain where the electrons go in a specific event, in statistical terms or how they respond related to conditions of the sun,” Tu said. “Eventually, we want to create a predictive model.”

The model, called the Relativistic Electron Dropout model, will include a combination of theory, numerical modeling and data analysis, leading to a simulation of both the electron dropout observed at high altitudes and the electron precipitation observed at low altitudes to resolve the governing mechanisms.

The NSF CAREER Award puts a strong emphasis on integrating educational outreach initiatives alongside research. As part of this study, Tu is developing the “Magnetosphere in the Solar System” learning module for the West Virginia Science Public Outreach Team to increase scientific literacy among middle school students in West Virginia and individuals pursuing scientific careers.

“Our goal is to increase interest and knowledge in space science of middle school students in West Virginia, especially underrepresented women and students of lower socioeconomic status,” Tu said. “We hope to inspire them to pursue a STEM career in the future.”

Tu has received this award for five years and will work with a team of two WVU graduate students and one undergraduate student.

“(Tu) is off to a remarkable start as a new professor of physics and astronomy at WVU,” said Earl Scime, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Oleg D. Jefimenko Professor of Physics and Astronomy. “An exceptional teacher in the classroom, her scientific research has already attracted support from NSF, NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense. She brings to WVU an entirely new area of space physics research. We are excited to have her as a member of the faculty and look forward to the continued development of her research program.”

Header Photo Credit: NASA