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WVU physics student to study effects of geomagnetic storms

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An undergraduate in West Virginia University's Department of Physics and Astronomy has received a $1,000 grant to study geomagnetic storms.

Tessa Maynard, a junior at WVU, will work with research assistant professor Amy Keesee, as they explore the effect of geomagnetic and solar storms on the magnetosphere of Earth.

The largest solar storm on record, the 1859 "Carrington Event," went down in history as a beautiful display of nature where people could read that evening with the words illuminated only by the unusually bright night sky. It also knocked out communication wires worldwide.

But what was once dazzling could wreak havoc on an increasingly electric-reliant society, scientists say.

"If a storm like that happened today, depending on the orientation of the ejection it could do nothing, or it could be an absolute disaster," Maynard said.

When an ejection of electrons, ions and atoms from a solar storm hits the Earth's magnetosphere, it disrupts electronics on Earth and can ultimately release currents strong enough to knock out power grids, satellites and pipelines.

Their project will utilize data from the IMAGE mission launched by NASA in 2000, specifically from the Medium Energetic Neutral Atom (MENA) instrument. NASA terminated the mission after losing contact with the satellite in 2005, but scientists still have access to the data.

Through the study, Maynard and Keesee are analyzing the geomagnetic and solar storms and looking at the speed and temperature of ions within them.

"We can take in just a few particles with this instrument on this satellite that's orbiting around the planet, and we can learn so much about what's happening and how it affects us," Maynard said.