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UNH Solar Theory Group One of NASA's Longest-Funded Programs
DURHAM, N.H. -- The University of New Hampshire's Solar Terrestrial Theory Group is one of only three space theory groups nationwide that have received continuous funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since the NASA program's inception in 1980.

And the group has recently been notified it has won another three years' funding, a total of $1,163,000, says its director, Joseph Hollweg, professor of physics. This puts UNH's group -- located within the university's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space -- in exclusive company: the other two groups funded since 1980 are at Utah State University and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

"Our longevity is due to several factors," according to Hollweg. "One reason is that we are unusually broad, dealing with phenomena in the entire range from the low solar atmosphere, out into the solar wind in which the Earth is immersed, and beyond the Earth to the outer limits of the solar wind itself. In NASA's listing of groups by discipline, we are listed as 'interdisciplinary.'"

NASA initiated its Solar-Terrestrial Theory Program in 1980. (Its name was later changed to the Space Physics Theory Program, and now it is called the Sun-Earth Connections Theory Program.) Since its inception, one of the principal goals of the Theory Program has been to create so-called "critical mass" groups devoted to developing a physical understanding of the wealth of phenomena discovered by NASA's experimental program, as well as by the programs of other countries, mainly in Europe and Japan.

The program has funded theoretical studies of the Sun's convection zone and atmosphere, the solar wind, the Earth's magnetosphere and its interaction with the solar wind, and the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere which interact with the magnetosphere. In general, the subjects studied involve the disciplines of magnetohydrodynamics, plasma physics, and energetic particle transport.

Another reason for the UNH group's longevity is that it is one of the few groups that emphasizes pencil and paper analysis, as opposed to massive computer simulations. Although Hollweg and his team do some computational work themselves, the deepest understanding comes from the analysis, which reveals at a glance how a phenomenon will change when basic physical parameters are changed. "In fact, we never do computational simulations without first having a firm analytical grasp of the dominant physical effects which are taking place," he says.

"Of course, a third reason for our longevity is that we have had some successes in explaining, or we are approaching explanations for, a number of interesting phenomena in space," Hollweg adds. "And we've generally worked on some of the most fundamental phenomena occurring in space, such as what heats the Sun's corona? What accelerates the solar wind? What causes the massive solar energy releases called solar flares and coronal mass ejections? Having dealt with the so-called 'big questions' has clearly been to our advantage."

The program is open to competition every three years. Initially the program funded 13 groups - at its peak, there were 17 groups in the program. In the most recent competition only 11 groups won funding, a reflection of a reduction in the program's budget.

By Carmelle Druchniak
UNH News Bureau