NASA chief visits University of Iowa labs doing solar research for NASA

IOWA CITY — The head of NASA was in Iowa City Friday to tout a grant from the space agency that’s financing University of Iowa research focused on the sun.

“It’s $115 million,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said. “That’s the biggest contract, the biggest grant that has ever been acquired by the University of Iowa.”

Bridenstine said the mission is to discover how the magnetic fields between the sun and earth interact.

“A lot of people don’t realize that we have very fast moving, charged particles — subatomic particles coming from the sun all of the time,” Bridenstine said during a news conference. “The good thing is here on Earth we are protected by these radiation belts. We are protected by the magnetosphere because we have this molten core. We are protected by Earth’s atmosphere.”

Bridenstine indicated the University of Iowa research team can help study solar flares which endanger GPS technology, which isn’t just used for driving directions. GPS is used for banking, for regulating the electric power grid and for managing the data transmitted on cell phone networks.

“Space touches all of our lives in so many ways that people don’t realize,” Bridenstine said.

Solar flares are disruptive and Bridenstine said the way we live could be dramatically transformed if the kind of “solar storm” that hit the earth in 1859 would happen in the future.

“So here’s what’s important: we have to be really good at studying and understanding these events that come from the sun and how the Earth is going to respond to those events,” Bridenstine said, mentioning legendary UI professor James Van Allen who discovered radiation belts encircling the earth. “…Here at the University of Iowa these missions are going to continue to transform how we understand the relationship between the sun and the earth.”

Bridenstine toured the University of Iowa’s physics department, meeting with students and professors who are leading the research. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and Congressman Dave Loebsack were along for the tour as well.