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University of Iowa News Release

Sept. 25, 2003

Researchers Get $450,000 Grant For Northern Lights Study

Craig Kletzing, project principal investigator and associate professor in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences department of physics and astronomy, has received a $450,000, three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study a mechanism thought to be responsible for generating the northern lights.

Kletzing and his co-investigators, professor Fred Skiff and assistant research scientist Scott Bounds, plan to conduct laboratory studies to investigate the fundamental physical properties of a wave which occurs in both space and laboratory plasmas (thin, electrically charged gases) called the Alfven wave. These waves are thought to play an important role in creating the aurora borealis or northern lights, as well as being important in other regions of space, such as the solar wind and the Earth's magnetopause. The lab studies will test a set of models for auroral particle acceleration by measuring the shape of the waves as well as the accelerated electrons.

Kletzing said, "These are basic physics studies to confirm our theories of how the aurora borealis can be created. By checking our ideas in the lab, we can test our ideas of what happens in space."

The NSF grant is just the latest northern lights investigation conducted by Kletzing and his colleagues. In 2003 and 2002, he traveled to 30 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska in winter to launch sub-orbital sounding rockets designed to study the northern lights. The rockets soared more than 500 miles into space to obtain measurements to help researchers to understand the interactions between waves and particles in the aurora, and how energy is exchanged between electric fields and electrons in the upper ionosphere.

The UI rocket launches, in turn, were part of a long line of distinguished UI research into the nature of the northern lights. In 2001, Kletzing and a research team, led by UI researchers Robert Mutel and Donald Gurnett, reported finding a novel way to remotely pinpoint the source of Earth's most intense, naturally occurring radio noise. They showed that the radio noise, called auroral kilometric radiation (AKR), is being emitted along magnetic field lines about 3,000 miles above bright regions in the Earth's northern lights.

Also, in 2000, UI researcher Jack Scudder and an international team of physicists advanced mankind's understanding of the northern lights and related phenomena by making the first direct observations of the switch that permits energy to be transferred between the solar wind and Earth. Additionally, in 1986, UI researcher Louis Frank and his colleagues used NASA's Dynamics Explorer 1 spacecraft to capture the first images of the complete ring of the northern lights.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009,