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Katherine Goodrich: Conducting out-of-this-world research

Katherine Goodrich

In 2019, NASA chose to fund the Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites (TRACERS), which will study the interactions between the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth. Katherine Goodrich is helping with this mission, which will launch in 2024.

The TRACERS mission is a small explorer mission. It’s two satellites that will be orbiting the Earth in a low Earth orbit mainly to observe the cusp region of the magnetosphere.

Goodrich, assistant professor of space physics, has focused her research efforts on microphysics of collisionless shocks in space, wave-particle interactions in various space environments and structures that arise from plasma turbulence. She also works to develop instrumentation and data analysis techniques to measure electric fields in space.

Currently, Goodrich works with the NASA-funded missions Magnetospheric Multi-scale (MMS) and Parker Solar Probe (PSP). Using the data from these missions, she can examine the smallest workings of space plasma from the Earth’s magnetosphere, to the solar wind, to Venus. She also helps in designing, calibrating and building instruments for those missions as well.

“The TRACERS mission is a small explorer mission,” Goodrich said. “It’s two satellites that will be orbiting the Earth in a low Earth orbit mainly to observe the cusp region of the magnetosphere. The Earth is a magnet. It has a magnetosphere and that magnetosphere interacts with magnetic fields originating from the sun. The sun’s magnetic fields and the Earth’s magnetic fields merge together and go through an explosive energy conversion process called magnetic reconnection.”

Goodrich said that when that reconnection happens, it converts magnetic energy and accelerates energetic particles toward the poles of Earth, causing things like the Aurora and magnetic storms. TRACERS will measure those incoming particles in the cusp region, or close to the Aurora, to see how often or how sporadic reconnection can occur.

Goodrich is currently working on a project that aims to connect space observations to laboratory experiments. She said this is her favorite project she’s worked on so far.

“What my expertise has been for the last few years is electric field measurements in space, and we use things called voltage probes, basically multimeters in space, to measure the difference in voltage from two points and divide by the distance and then you get an electric field.”

“That’s relatively easy in principle to do, but when you do that, you’re actually altering the plasma in a certain way. So you have to know what your probe is doing very well  and what your spacecraft is doing to the plasma to get accurate measurements.”

The goal of the project is to take a model of the probe, use a plasma chamber to try to recreate the effects and measure exactly what the response of that probe is to get a better picture of what the probe is measuring in space.

Goodrich said that this project has helped build up the White Hall lab, which she said has helped her gain a variety of different skills apart from science including how to set up a really interesting laboratory experiment and how to choose the necessary materials for an experiment.

Goodrich has been at WVU for about a semester and a half and said her favorite thing about working at the University is the freedom she has to work on the projects that she wants to pursue.

“I first came here in August at the beginning of the fall semester. Coming here and interviewing, it was really cool to see how much we expand over plasmas in general because we have theory, and we have a lot of really interesting laboratory experiments. It really inspired me to get out of my comfort zone and try to be more engaged with the laboratory side.”

Goodrich said that the lab located in White Hall is completely new, and encourages anyone interested in learning about space to join in their research.

Written by: Alayna Fuller, West Virginia University 

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