May 11th 2018

Space Weather Prediction: Weathering the Solar Storm

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Have you ever wondered what causes the Northern Lights phenomenon? It’s not magic; it’s electrically charged particles and gaseous particles colliding in the air. What causes this collision? The answer can be found in space — space weather, specifically.

As human infrastructure expands into space, predicting the weather in that environment becomes just as important as it is on Earth. The U.S. military is steadily increasing its dependence on satellites for communication, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, so accurate space weather prediction technology is vital.

A Solar Storm Is Brewing

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration‘s Space Weather Prediction Center monitors Earth’s upper atmosphere for possible hazardous solar flares and coronal mass ejections, or large releases of matter and electromagnetic radiation.

These outbursts are occasionally directed toward Earth, creating large disturbances called solar storms in our magnetic field and upper atmosphere. Such events can have a major or even catastrophic impact on the performance and reliability of technological systems in space and on Earth, and can even endanger human health, according to NOAA.

Forecasting Space Weather

Accurate space weather prediction is a challenge, which is why meteorologists seek to improve the ability to characterize the global climate and predict and track storms. To accomplish this, scientists gather data from remote sensing assets like unmanned aerial vehicles and geostationary satellites. Space weather forecasting helps meteorologists better understand how Earth’s atmosphere responds to changes in the space environment and how satellites are impacted.

The History of Space Situational Awareness Tech

Space weather monitoring is an ongoing effort accomplished using various methods and technologies.

In collaboration with the European Space Agency, NASA operates the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. SOHO’s instruments monitor the sun, from its deep core to its outer corona. Continuously imaging the solar corona is critical to space weather forecasting, as it provides advance warning of solar storms.

In 2006, NASA launched the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory spacecraft. STEREO employs 3-D vision and advanced stereoscopic imaging to observe the sun and determine how quickly space weather phenomena are moving.

NASA’s Living With a Star program manages various space weather missions. In 2010, NASA launched the first LWS mission, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, to study the sun’s magnetic field. In 2012, NASA launched the Van Allen Probes to monitor the Van Allen radiation belts that surround Earth. The more we understand about the belts, the easier it will be to predict future storms. Future LWS missions include the Space Environment Testbed, set for launch in April 2018, with the goal of improving spacecraft hardware performance in the space radiation environment.

Parallel to NASA’s efforts, the U.S. Air Force is improving its own space weather forecasting abilities and its understanding of space weather’s impact on its current and future fleet of spacecraft. The Air Force plans to install Energetic Charged Particle sensors on its next generation of spacecraft by 2023, according to Space News.

The Key Space Weather Players

In addition to NASA, many organizations across the planet contribute to space weather situational awareness and the space weather knowledge database, according to NOAA. The European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness program includes extensive space weather monitoring, for example.

The American Commercial Space Weather Association includes a growing number of commercial companies, such as Space Environment Technologies, the Carmel Research Center and many others, that are major providers of space weather data products. The Air Force is actively working to expand its collaboration with these commercial and international partners.

Yes, There’s an App for That . . .

For those who want to keep track of space weather themselves, a number of smartphone apps are available, such as the Space Weather App or NASA Space Weather.

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