Published: Oct. 5, 2021 By

Chu with PhD student Ian Geraghty in Antarctica in 2019.
Xinzhao Chu (right) with student Ian Geraghty in 2019 after landing at McMurdo.
Header image: Chu's lidar facility in operation in Antarctica.

It is one of the coldest and most isolated places on Earth, but for a team of scientists and engineers from CU Boulder, it is the ideal location to conduct complex space-atmospheric research: the frozen tundra of Antarctica.

Xinzhao Chu has earned a $3.3 million, five-year National Science Foundation grant to study complex interactions between the Sun and Earth’s upper atmosphere that impact our climate, life on Earth, and orbiting satellites. The research utilizes advanced lidar systems and is conducted primarily from McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Chu is a professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences and a fellow in the CU Boulder Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

“By more fully understanding the Sun-Earth interactions, we can understand space weather better to guide spacecraft to avoid problems from solar storms, we can improve upper atmosphere climate models and better predict climate change,” Chu said.

Lidar research has been a cornerstone of Chu’s career, with a focus in Antarctica. Unique atmospheric conditions available only at extreme latitudes make the location perfect for these studies. Her specialized lidar systems shoot pulsed laser beams into the sky to observe conditions ranging from roughly 10-200 km (6-124 miles) in altitude, where terrestrial weather and space weather processes influence each other.

This NSF award marks her fourth to conduct studies from Antarctica. By this grant’s end, she will have conducted research for more than a full solar cycle, which lasts 11 years.

“The sun is coming out of solar minimum and will begin to ramp up to solar max,” Chu said. “During that time we’ll see much more activity in the ionosphere and solarsphere. With these long-term measurements, we can confirm long-term trends.”

Chu has a dedicated facility at Arrival Heights Observatory near McMurdo Station from her previous grants, but it has been inaccessible for the last 12 months due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It will be nearly two years of a gap before we’re using the laser again,” Chu said.

During the time her team has been away from McMurdo, they have been analyzing earlier data and preparing for a new deployment. Her past research has netted dozens of published papers, including a discovery last year of a critical connections between wind patterns at the equator and atmospheric waves 6,000 miles away in Antarctica.

“It’s challenging to get this data, but once we get it the science pays off,” Chu said.