Department News

Professor Cassak Leads Commentary on the Importance of Space Physics to Society

In the run-up to the March for Science in April, 2017, the American Geophysical Union, a leading organization of over 60,000 Earth and space scientists worldwide, published 29 “commentaries” in a special collection outlining the important of Earth and space sciences to humanity. WVU Physics and Astronomy Associate Professor Paul Cassak was asked to be the lead author on one of these commentaries.

The motivation for the commentaries is described in an online article.

Dr. Cassak’s commentary was entitled “Space Physics and Policy for Contemporary Society” and was coauthored by a collection of luminaries in the field of space physics. The commentary started with a brief overview of the field of space physics, which includes research about the Sun (solar physics), the region between the Sun and the planets (interplanetary space, called the heliosphere), the study of the magnetized bubbles surrounding many of the planets in the solar system (called magnetospheric physics), and the study of Earth’s ionized upper atmosphere (called aeronomy). The history of the field was discussed, including its central role in the space race. The first satellites were launched to take data in the region of space surrounding Earth.

Societal impacts of space physics were then summarized. The impact that gets the most attention is “space weather”, whereby eruptions on the Sun send radiation and material from the Sun out into space, where it can impact us on Earth. Potential consequences include damaging satellites and taking them out of their intended orbits, harming astronauts, causing widespread power outages, and eroding terrestrial pipelines. There are over 50,000 subscribers to the national Space Weather Prediction Center’s space weather page from many public and private sectors.

Many other ways that space physics impacts our lives are often overlooked, such as the development of technologies as a result of satellite design and the crucial role that satellites play in our modern economy. Solar cells, devices to measure magnetic fields for military and geological purposes, and an array of medical devices have either been invented or improved as a result of space research. There are currently over 1,000 operational satellites in orbit used for military and commercial communication, and almost everyone knows how helpful GPS can be on a day-to-day basis.

The American Geophysical Union provided press support for the release of the commentaries, and made them freely available to the public.

In 2017, Dr. Cassak was also chosen for leadership positions in his research field. He was elected Vice Chair/Chair Elect for the Geospace Environment Modeling (GEM) group. The group, supported by the National Science Foundation, has two annual meetings with up to 250 attendees and focuses on research of Earth’s magnetic environment. He will lead the organization from 2019-2021. He was also selected to be a member of the NASA Heliophysics Advisory Committee (HPAC), a new federal advisory council that meets in Washington, DC, four times a year to advise NASAs Heliophysics Division on matters of science.

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Planetarium News

The planetarium has seen record attendance levels this past year, engaging over 5,000 visitors, largely thanks to graduate students Aaron Weaver and Megan Jones. We added two new shows to our collection: “Earth, Moon, and Sun” is great for meeting science standards with school groups, and “From Earth to the Universe” is a beautiful, up-to-date exploration of our universe.

Hidden Figures

In September and October, we are participating in the WVU Campus Read events with a feature introduction “Hidden Figures in the Stars” to celebrate the contributions of West Virginia native Katherine Johnson to NASA and the space race. The Hidden Figures intro accompanies our “Ultimate Universe” film.

Finally, the planetarium’s public image got a makeover this year. With the help of the Eberly College Media Team, we now have professional photographs of our staff giving presentations, a tri-fold educator brochure, a digital flyer, an updated mailing list template for our Mountaineer Skies newsletter, and new donation cards, envelopes, and online interface. We have also moved into the digital age with a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter.

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2017 Physics and Astronomy Student Awards

 2017 Physics and Astronomy Student Awards

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Ned Flag receives Cottrell Scholar Award

Faculty Member Edward Flagg Receives Cottrell Scholar Award

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