Space Science With Earthly Ties

Unique 3D model of the sun (or any star) with surface activity and solar flares, off top left corner.

Scientists at the Center for Space Science at NYU Abu Dhabi are onto something that seems out of this world: the idea that modern techniques used by astrophysicists to study the inside of the Sun can improve the way geophysicists on Earth image oil and gas reservoirs.

How is it possible? And what are some other ways the Center at NYUAD is contributing to research innovation in the UAE and globally?

  • established in February 2015
  • six investigators and postdoctoral researchers from around the world
  • collectively co-authored 30 scientific publications in leading astrophysics journals
  • state-of-the-art High Performance Computing system
Core Research Questions

The Center is primarily focused on the study of the internal structure and dynamics of the Sun and stars through seismology and modeling.

Core research questions include: Why does the number of sunspots vary with a period of eleven years? What motions inside the Sun drive the global magnetic field? What controls stellar activity on stars other than the Sun? To find answers, techniques need to be developed to see inside the Sun and stars.

The physical processes inside the Sun are best studied with helioseismology: the observation and interpretation of solar seismic waves. Helioseismology uses space and ground-based networks of telescopes to figure out what the inside of the Sun looks like, and characterize what’s going on in there.

The data collected in Abu Dhabi relies heavily on space observations of solar and stellar oscillations from NASA and ESA spacecrafts.

There is a strong need for scientific and intellectual infrastructure in the UAE.

Katepalli Sreenivasan, principal investigator, Center for Space Science
Early discoveries

Some of the Center’s first major results are summarized in the paper Seismic Sounding of Convection in the Sun, which discusses how scientists can learn and characterize the complex motions inside the Sun.

The authors are especially interested in the solar convection zone — the outer 30 percent of the Sun — to determine how fast fluid moves and in what direction it’s moving.

Using helioseismology, scientists found that motions in the convection zone are much slower than expected from numerical simulations. It’s still a major mystery in solar physics and a topic they need to keep working on to resolve the discrepancy between the models and the observations.

Earthy ties

Techniques used in solar seismology such as data analysis, passive imaging, full-waveform inversions, and high performance computing are surprisingly relevant to exploration geophysics on Earth.

By recording seismic waves at the Sun’s surface, scientists can make images of the Sun below the surface. These techniques apply in very much the same way to imaging the subsurface structure of the Earth.

The Center is home to the best High Performance Computing system in the UAE.

Laurent Gizon, co-principal investigator, Center for Space Science

Exploration geophysicists have shown an interest in the techniques we use for the Sun to image, for example, oil and gas reservoirs beneath the surface of the Earth. The Center intends to share this knowledge with oil exploration experts at ADNOC and the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, which could create opportunities for exciting collaborations between the fields of helioseismic imaging and exploration geophysics.

UAE innovators

In addition to being a hub of intellectual activity within NYUAD, the Center aims to be a critical resource in supporting an important pillar in the UAE’s National Innovation Strategy: space.

The goal in the next five years is to set up a National Data Center (NDC) for space science that will make the latest observations from leading space missions available to the UAE science community.

Space data is often publicly available, but infrastructure in the UAE is needed to acquire and analyze it locally. The NDC will make these observations available to all institutions in the UAE. NYUAD is also home to the best High Performance Computing system in the UAE, so having the data in close proximity to this computational resource makes perfect sense.