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USU Space Dynamics Laboratory mission to launch Thursday evening at NASA

A group of scientists in protective gear lowering a hood onto a mechanism while in a large laboratory.
Allison Bills
Space Dynamics Laboratory
SDL personnel removing the protective shroud over the AWE (Atmospheric Waves Experiment) payload.

After years of research and development, a mission by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory will finally begin to study atmospheric weather changes from the International Space Station. But first, the Logan-based technology will need to successfully launch from NASA Kennedy Space Center on Thursday evening.

The Atmospheric Waves Experiment, or AWE, will first mount an infrared telescope developed at the Space Dynamics Laboratory to the outside of the International Space Station.

“(The telescope) will be looking down at the Earth’s atmosphere from a specific region,” AWE project manager Burt Lamborn said in an interview Wednesday, “with the ultimate goal to understand better how Earth weather, or terrestrial weather, impacts space weather, or weather higher up in the atmosphere.”

Atmospheric gravity waves, or AGWs, are created when air is displaced by Earth’s weather or terrain, say over a mountain, and then disrupts stable air above, according to the National Weather Service.

Why are these waves significant? Having a better understanding of this type of weather is crucial to protecting satellites and other technology in orbit, “as space weather can disrupt communication and navigation systems and impact spacecraft,” according to the AWE mission website.

“This is the first time that AGWs, especially the small-scale ones, will be measured globally at the mesopause, the gateway to the space,” said Michael Taylor, a Utah State physics professor and principal investigator for the mission, in a NASA news release last month. “More importantly, this is the first time we will be able to quantify the impacts of AGWs on space weather.”

The AWE mission is the first time SDL has been the prime contractor — meaning the Cache County-based laboratory is responsible for nearly all aspects of the project — for a mission of this size. Though the mission was officially picked by NASA for development in 2019, research and designing the equipment for a project like AWE started back in 2015.

“Then once it launches, the data will come to the Space Dynamics Laboratory, where we’ll process it partway, and then send it up to Utah State University for final processing,” Lamborn said Wednesday.

If all goes well, the telescope will begin sending data back to Earth about a week after the launch, Lambord said, adding, “It’ll be a few months before the data is fully processed and released to the scientific community for further analysis."

The AWE mission is scheduled to take flight around 6:28 p.m. MST Thursday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission is part of SpaceX’s 29th commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station.

To watch the launch, tune into NASA Television, the NASA app, NASA’s YouTube page or view the launch on NASA’s website.

Reporter Jacob Scholl covers northern Utah as part of a newly-created partnership between The Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Public Radio. Scholl writes for The Tribune and appears on-air for UPR.