Okay so it wasn't quiet that simple. I mentioned to a Canadian colleague over diner at a meeting this last March that it would be cool of we could make sure EISCAT, which I learned about during that conference, was running while BARREL is up this summer since we'll be flying right over it. He mentioned that I probably could apply for radar time (which I knew nothing about) and he gave me the contacts of people who could help. This last suggestion was a very important step as the only real stuff I knew about the radar came from that field trip.
About three weeks later I knew more about radars than I ever imagined I would and we had a mission title/acronym, a pretty impressive science question (if I do say so myself), and a new collaboration. Then the waiting game...
About a month later, so actually pretty quick in terms of a peer review process, we have been awarded time on the EISCAT radar! And to think, if I hadn't been on that field trip, I wouldn't have been aware that this type of data was available or that we would be flying anywhere close to where they take observations. This is one great example of why in person meetings are so very important! The sad thing is that I was one of only a handful of American scientist at this meeting due to travel restrictions from the US government.
So why is this such an amazing proposal you ask? Why does it matter that we got this radar time? What does this huge piece of equipment even study?
I've mentioned before why it's important that we understand the Van Allen Radiation Belts and their variability, you can check out my google hangout, or if you're tiered of listening to me, see my friend Brett's which is perhaps tied a bit more to space weather than mine. ... so I won't talk too much on that.
This proposal starts getting into chemistry (which I hated in school, well not so much hated, but my lab partner's notebook started disintegrating due to all the chemicals we spilled. Lets just say that it was pretty clear I shouldn't be a chemist). Specifically, we're starting to get into atmospheric chemistry and the depletion of ozone.
So let's step back a bit. Well let's step back about 12 Earth Radii, to the general location where particles traveling from the Sun (the solar wind) can start to enter the Earth's magnetosphere... Then they do the Dungy Dance, but there are no you tube videos of that (thank goodness). These particles now get swept back into the Earth's magnetotail where they can be accelerated Earthward ultimately down field lines to the atmosphere as seen in the movie below.
However, at times when there is a large amount of loss from the radiation belts, we're putting a ton of energy into the upper atmosphere. What happens to it? What happens to all those X-rays? We know that they get re-absorbed which is why we see so few and why we have to fly above about 30 km.
Turns out that this process can affect the chemistry and the different types of interactions found in the mesosphere. Not sure where the mesosphere is? Neither was I. Turns out I should have known. NASA has made a graphic with BARREL included, in the different layers of the atmosphere.
Solar activity can greatly affect the amount of geomagnetic activity we have. Okay good, this is still solidly on ground I understand. The amount and type of geomagnetic activity we have affects how much of the radiation belts are lost to the upper atmosphere. Once again all is good with this statement. The loss of these particles can then affect the atmospheric chemistry and ultimately long term trends of climate... and now we're back into the chemistry. This is why you have collaborators. Dr. Kavanagh knows much more about this then I do.
So why do we need EISCAT to help look at this? EISCAT can look at how the ion density changes at different heights in the atmosphere. This will help tell us what energies of electrons are being precipitated that BARREL can't observe. It will also be able to help us see a more complete view of the effects the electron precipitation has on the atmosphere than BARREL would ever be able to do alone. BARREL however, can see the higher energy electrons being lost with both better energy and temporal resolution. Thus we can help to determine what types of mechanisms might be responsible for all of this radiation belt energy being dumped into the upper atmosphere and ultimately the atmospheric changes in the ozone process.
As you probably can tell, this is an expansion into a new field/set of scientific questions for me. It's exciting! By the time we have our first paper ready (which will be months and months from now), I hope to be better able to explain why all this atmospheric chemistry is important, and what atmospheric chemistry in particular we care about it is.... I suppose this means I'm going to have to actually start considering more particles then just electrons, protons, helium, and oxygen ions. Time to go dust off that periodic table.