As it glides through space, the planet Earth is buoyed by a solar wind. This solar wind, coming from the sun, blows at over a million miles per hour, and constantly buffets the planet with blasts of energetic particles and electromagnetic radiation.
Thankfully we are surrounded by Earth’s magnetic field which, like an invisible shield, envelops us and deflects the worst dangers. Everything inside the shield is what is called the magnetosphere. The solar-terrestrial interaction – that almost cosmic ballet between the sun and Earth – not only brings generous warmth to the planet, but also results in what we call space weather. Space weather is the popular name for energy-releasing phenomena in the magnetosphere, associated with space storms and substorms. These are hurricanes in space that cause problems for satellite and ground-based technologies, and in extreme cases also astronauts.
This is what we study at SWURL, the Space Weather Undergraduate Research Laboratory, located in the Presbyterian College Physics Department. At SWURL we conduct research in space physics including space plasma physics, magnetospheric physics, ionospheric physics, atmospheric physics, and heliospheric studies.
Student researchers in SWURL contribute to several projects. Currently students are working on the NASA POLAR satellite, chronoastrobiology, and statistical physics approaches to river networks, using data from Google and NASA satellites.
Unusual for a small liberal arts institution, the research that students are involved with is cutting edge science, the type that normally only graduate students and postdoctoral researchers have the opportunity to explore, at large research institutions. This creates unique opportunities, not present elsewhere in any other program on campus. Several students have presented research at international scientific conferences, and several undergraduate students have published in international journals, an extremely rare feat at any college in the country.