Physicist Ming Zhang Wins $550,000 Award Under NASA’s Early Stage Innovations Program
MELBOURNE, FLA. — A Florida Tech physicist has been awarded a $550,000 NASA grant to try to solve one of astronomy’s most vexing and dangerous problems: predicting when and where harmful doses of solar energetic particle radiation will occur.
Whether from solar flares, solar wind, corona mass ejections or other phenomena, radiation from solar energy particles can affect astronauts working in space, spacecraft electronics, signals from GPS satellites and even commercial jetliners on polar routes.
Yet despite decades of observation and research and a grasp of many of the numerous “observables” that can cause these radiation bursts, scientists have developed models that can predict the timing and strength of the bursts only about half the time – not accurate enough to generate really useful forecasts.
The Early Stage Innovations grant from NASA will introduce a new discipline that could help move these efforts closer to useful reality: machine learning.
Florida Tech physicist Ming Zhang will serve as principal investigator in the three-year research project, and he will partner with Philip Chan, a computer scientist at the university. They will seek to predict solar energetic particle radiation timing and dosage using physics-guided machine learning algorithms developed with data from observables from the solar photosphere, corona and elsewhere.
“Machine learning may allow us to develop algorithms of using real-time observations to give us warnings ahead of time, and also to predict how strong the burst will be, and when it will begin, peak and disappear,” Zhang said.
Their work could have particular ramifications for human missions to the moon and travel in interplanetary space, which unlike the International Space Station and other low-Earth-orbit endeavors, would not benefit from radiation protection from the Earth’s magnetic field.
Florida Tech is one of 14 universities NASA announced in November that will receive funding to study an array of topics under the agency’s Space Technology Research Grants program.
“There are talented researchers outside of NASA, working at universities across the country, who are poised to help us look at challenging aspects of space exploration in new ways,” Walt Engelund, deputy associate administrator of programs within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement. “With the help of these institutions and principal investigators, NASA will accelerate innovation for critical space technologies.”
Other universities awarded funding in addition to Florida Tech include Rensselaer Polytechnic, Purdue, Auburn and University of Michigan.