Department of Physics
The Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center (SPARC) was established at the Air Force Academy in March 2003 to study the physics of space and upper atmosphere environments.
Over the past ten years the Department of Physics has developed extensive faculty expertise to promote excellence in cadet space physics education and Air Force related space research. The majority of the faculty expertise has resided in military sequential tour officers. From 2000 to the present faculty research efforts have functioned under the Physics Department's Solar Terrestrial Interactions Group (STInG). STInG members individually have proposed for research funding of projects aligned with Air Force needs from a variety of sources such as NASA, NSF and AFOSR. Establishment of the SPARC, with its new civilian manpower, will stabilize the research and allow the Academy to continue providing excellence in space physics education and enhance our research contributions to the Air Force space mission.
Areas of Interest
Our core area of expertise is the study of how stellar and near-earth-environment plasmas affect the Earth in general and Air Force systems in particular. This expertise ranges from theory and modeling to designing and building instruments for measuring plasma characteristics and integrating our instruments into satellite payloads. SPARC members engage in three main activities: developing payloads for the Academy's small satellite program, applied physics and modeling upper atmospheric response to solar and space weather events. Beyond these main activities, our interests extend from the surface of the Earth to outer space. These bookend interests are terrestrial weather in the form of hurricane research and the exploration of solar-like stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Figure 1 shows the number of refereed publications and cadet interactions of the group for the past five years.
The Space Weather efforts include studies to understand large-scale electrodynamic response of the upper atmosphere to various forcing mechanisms which start in the solar wind and are transferred to the upper atmosphere via various mechanisms including the Aurora Borealis. Research efforts also include investigating the effects and characteristics of upward directed lightening, called Sprites, which can affect the upper atmosphere from below.
The Small Satellite team builds and integrates instruments for characterizing the behavior of upper atmosphere plasma and near-earth plasmas. Various platforms are possible for these instruments, the primary of which is the USAFA family of FalconSat spacecraft. While SPARC personnel are intimately involved in the entire process, our main area of concentration is in choosing, developing and analyzing the scientific payload and its data. Other possible platforms used to conduct investigations include high-altitude balloons, rocket launches, Space Shuttle, and Space Station deployed missions. Data collected from these instruments allow faculty and cadets to investigate topics relevant to the Air Force.
The Applied Physics efforts include remote sensing of the ionosphere and mesosphere, hyper-spectral modeling, plasma diagnostic development and use of plasma actuators to control airflow. The astronomy efforts focus on studying the characteristics of cool, low-mass and variable stars. Data used in these studies are collected through both space-based and ground-based sensors such as the Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WIRE) satellite, the CHANDRA X-ray satellite, and the 61-cm Cassegrain Telescope at the USAFA Observatory. In addition, a number of hardware development efforts are underway including ultra-efficient filters and high-speed Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) cameras.
SPARC members are also actively involved in tropospheric weather research including (1) satellite-based tropical cyclone structure and intensity estimation, (2) the development of sensible weather visualization and weather impact decision aids, and (3) high spatial/temporal sampling and characterization of complex boundary layer morphology in the presence of complex topography.
Research and Publications
Department of Physics personnel are interested in a broad range of subjects such as Space Weather, Auroral Physics, Magnetospheric Physics, Neutron Monitor and Atmospheric Radiative Transfer. We have published in journals such as Geophysical Research Letters, Journal of Geophysical Research, Advanced Space Research and Journal of Atmospheric and Terrestrial Physics.