Published: Sept. 13, 2023

NASA LogoThree University of Colorado Boulder aerospace graduate students have been named 2023 Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST).

Nick Dietrich, Ben Hogan, Andrea Lopez, and Margaret Scott have each earned the grants, which provide up to $50,000 annually for three years to cover tuition, expenses, and student-designed research projects.

FINESST proposals must address goals relevant to NASA's science mission directorate divisions -- heliophysics, earth science, planetary science, or astrophysics. Each of CU Boulder's honorees are being recognized for heliophysics research, which covers the study of our sun and how it influences Earth’s space environment.

Find out more about each of our awardees and their specific research below:

Nick Dietrich

5th year PhD Student
Advisor: Tomoko Matsuo
Lab: Geospace Data Science Lab

Tracking and managing satellites and orbital debris in the low Earth orbit (LEO) environment becomes increasingly difficult during geomagnetic storms due to the impact of highly variable neutral density and the associated uncertainty on atmospheric drag. It is critical to advance understanding and physics-based modeling of storm-time dynamics and energetics of the ionosphere-thermosphere (I-T) system. However, the capabilities of current I-T models are limited due to model biases, as well as mis-specified model parameters and external forcing. These limitations stem from measurement gaps in the neutral states and a lack of incorporating available geospace observations into modeling. Reanalysis seeks to overcome these limitations by synthesizing physics-based model forecasts with observations using data assimilation (DA) approaches to enable a more complete depiction of the I-T system. The goal of my research is to advance understanding of the storm-time neutral density variability and improve LEO orbit positioning by developing a comprehensive I-T reanalysis field. I will achieve this reanalysis using new DA capabilities, established as part of my PhD research, that synthesizes NASA satellite data and other geospace observations along with using state-of-the-art magnetospheric forcing DA tools. I plan to make the reanalysis data products and their uncertainty publicly available to encourage community engagement.

Ben Hogan

4th Year PhD Student
Advisor: Xinlin Li
Lab: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP)

Earth’s outer radiation belt contains high energy “killer” electrons which can easily penetrate satellite shielding, damage space infrastructure, and threaten potential space travelers. Understanding the processes that govern the populations of these electrons and overall radiation belt system is critical. My work is focused on understanding events when rapid decreases develop in these killer electron populations at specific magnetic regions of space. Depending on the spatial location of these dropouts, they can contribute to splitting the Earth’s outer radiation and forming a three-belt structure around Earth, as first documented by LASP director Dan Baker using the REPT instrument onboard the recent flagship Van Allen Probes mission. Continued analysis of data from the detailed in-situ measurements made by the Van Allen Probes mission continues to provide a wealth of understanding of radiation belt populations, and my work will continue these efforts as we try to unveil the driving mechanisms of these electron dropouts. Using data from REPT, magnetometers onboard the Van Allen Probes mission, and quasi-linear wave particle interaction theory, we will investigate the potential contributions of EMIC waves (electromagnetic ion cyclotron waves) as a driver of this mechanism and quantify their contributions at locations not considered before.

Andrea Lopez

3rd Year PhD Student
Advisor: Hanspeter Schaub
Lab: Autonomous Vehicle Systems (AVS) lab

On-orbit, passive detection of objects in the vicinity of a spacecraft is a desirable capability for Space Situational Awareness applications, especially in orbit regions that are not illuminated by the Sun. Energetic electrons present in the space environment plasma interact with any object in space, and can excite the release of x-rays. My research investigates exploiting these naturally induced x-ray signals to detect space objects in the vicinity of a spacecraft and estimate their relative motion.

Margaret Scott

4th year PhD student
Advisor: Jade Morton
Lab: Satellite Navigation and Sensing Laboratory

Permafrost is undergoing rapid change due to the warming arctic climate. Permafrost lies beneath more than a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, and its degradation can be gradual or abrupt. Abrupt thaw processes happen on timescales of days or weeks, and are characterized by dramatic landscape changes such as land subsidence, wetland formation, and lake drainage. However, significant uncertainty remains regarding abrupt permafrost thaw, such as (1) uncertainty in differentiating between lakes and wetlands in current datasets (which have unique methane emissions), (2) understanding how quickly thaw lakes and wetlands drain, and (3) estimating the rate at which lakes will be invaded by wetland vegetation in the drainage process (emissions off-setters). The goal of this research is to fill the knowledge gaps surrounding abrupt thaw processes by generating high-resolution maps of thermokarst wetlands and lakes using GNSS-Reflectometry (GNSS-R) measurements in the permafrost underlain regions of North America on biweekly, seasonal, and inter-annual timescales. Spaceborne GNSS-R is uniquely positioned to improve thermokarst wetland and lake mapping given its high spatial resolution, short revisit time, and ability to penetrate vegetation and clouds. Many previous studies have demonstrated GNSS-R’s capability in sensing water-related processes, such as small inland water body detection, with it outperforming other missions’ water detection under dense vegetation. This specifically attests to the merit of GNSS-R for thaw-related applications as boreal forests cover most sub-arctic permafrost regions.