Tag Archives: space weather

Mega space storm would kill satellites for a decade

Mega space storm would kill satellites for a decade – space – 13 September 2011 – New Scientist.

A MAJOR solar storm would not only damage Earth’s infrastructure, it could also leave a legacy of radiation that keeps killing satellites for years.

When the sun belches a massive cloud of charged particles at Earth, it can damageMovie Camera our power grids and fry satellites’ electronics. But that’s not all. New calculations suggest that a solar megastorm could create a persistent radiation problem in low-Earth orbit, disabling satellites for up to a decade after the storm first hit.

It would do this by destroying a natural buffer against radiation – a cloud of charged particles, or plasma, that normally surrounds Earth out to a distance of four times the planet’s radius.

The relatively high density of plasma in the cloud prevents the formation of electromagnetic waves that would otherwise accelerate electrons to high speeds, turning them into a form of radiation. This limits the amount of radiation in the innermost of two radiation belts that surround Earth.

But solar outbursts can erode the cloud. In October 2003, a major outburst whittled the cloud down so that it only extended to two Earth radii. A repeat of a huge outburst that occurred in 1859 – which is expected – would erode the cloud to almost nothing.

Yuri Shprits of the University of California in Los Angeles led a team that simulated how such a large storm would affect the radiation around Earth.

They found that in the absence of the cloud, electromagnetic waves accelerated large numbers of electrons to high speed in Earth’s inner radiation belt, causing a huge increase in radiation there. The inner radiation belt is densest at about 3000 kilometres above Earth’s equator, which is higher than low-Earth orbit. But the belt hugs Earth more tightly above high latitude regions, overlapping with satellites in low-Earth orbit.

Speeding electrons cause electric charge to accumulate on satellite electronics, prompting sparks and damage. Increasing the number of speeding electrons would drastically shorten the lifetime of a typical satellite, the team calculates (Space Weather, DOI: 10.1029/2011sw000662).

The researchers say that the destructive radiation could hang about for a long time, spiralling around Earth’s magnetic field lines. In 1962, a US nuclear test carried out in space flooded low-Earth orbit with radiation that lasted a decade and probably ruined several satellites.

“When you get this radiation that far in, it tends to be quite long-lived and very persistent,” says Ian Mann of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who was not involved in the study.

Thicker metal shielding around satellite electronics would help, says Shprits. The persistent radiation would also be hazardous for astronauts and electronics on the International Space Station.

Sunspot Prediction Breakthrough

Sunspot Breakthrough – NASA Science.

August 25, 2011: Imagine forecasting a hurricane in Miami weeks before the storm was even a swirl of clouds off the coast of Africa—or predicting a tornado in Kansas from the flutter of a butterfly’s wing1 in Texas. These are the kind of forecasts meteorologists can only dream about.

Could the dream come true? A new study by Stanford researchers suggests that such forecasts may one day be possible—not on Earth, but on the sun.

“We have learned to detect sunspots before they are visible to the human eye,” says Stathis Ilonidis, a PhD student at Stanford University. “This could lead to significant advances in space weather forecasting.”

Sunspots are the “butterfly’s wings” of solar storms. Visible to the human eye as dark blemishes on the solar disk, sunspots are the starting points of explosive flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that sometimes hit our planet 93 million miles away. Consequences range from Northern Lights to radio blackouts to power outages.

Sunspot Breakthrough (splash sdo, 558px)

Based on data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, this movie shows a sunspot emerging from depth in February 2011. Visualization credit: Thomas Hartlep and Scott Winegarden, Stanford University. [video] [more]

Astronomers have been studying sunspots for more than 400 years, and they have pieced together their basic characteristics: Sunspots are planet-sized islands of magnetism that float in solar plasma. Although the details are still debated, researchers generally agree that sunspots are born deep inside the sun via the action of the sun’s inner magnetic dynamo. From there they bob to the top, carried upward by magnetic buoyancy; a sunspot emerging at the stellar surface is a bit like a submarine emerging from the ocean depths.

In the August 19th issue of Science, Ilonidis and co-workers Junwei Zhao and Alexander Kosovichev announced that they can see some sunspots while they are still submerged.

Their analysis technique is called “time-distance helioseismology2,” and it is similar to an approach widely used in earthquake studies. Just as seismic waves traveling through the body of Earth reveal what is inside the planet, acoustic waves traveling through the body of the sun can reveal what is inside the star. Fortunately for helioseismologists, the sun has acoustic waves in abundance. The body of the sun is literally roaring with turbulent boiling motions. This sets the stage for early detection of sunspots.

“We can’t actually hear these sounds across the gulf of space,” explains Ilonidis, “but we can see the vibrations they make on the sun’s surface.” Instruments onboard two spacecraft, the venerable Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and the newer Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) constantly monitor the sun for acoustic activity.

Sunspot Breakthrough (splash soho, 558px)

False-colors in this SOHO movie represent acoustic travel-time differences heralding a sunspot as it rises toward the sun’s surface in October 2003. Visualization credit: Thomas Hartlep, Stanford University. [video] [more]

Submerged sunspots have a detectable effect on the sun’s inner acoustics—namely, sound waves travel faster through a sunspot than through the surrounding plasma. A big sunspot can leapfrog an acoustic wave by 12 to 16 seconds. “By measuring these time differences, we can find the hidden sunspot.”

Ilonidis says the technique seems to be most sensitive to sunspots located about 60,000 km beneath the sun’s surface. The team isn’t sure why that is “the magic distance,” but it’s a good distance because it gives them as much as two days advance notice that a spot is about to reach the surface.

“This is the first time anyone has been able to point to a blank patch of sun and say ‘a sunspot is about to appear right there,'” says Ilonidis’s thesis advisor Prof. Phil Scherrer of the Stanford Physics Department. “It’s a big advance.”

“There are limits to the technique,” cautions Ilonidis. “We can say that a big sunspot is coming, but we cannot yet predict if a particular sunspot will produce an Earth-directed flare.”

So far they have detected five emerging sunspots—four with SOHO and one with SDO. Of those five, two went on to produce X-class flares, the most powerful kind of solar explosion. This encourages the team to believe their technique can make a positive contribution to space weather forecasting. Because helioseismology is computationally intensive, regular monitoring of the whole sun is not yet possible—”we don’t have enough CPU cycles,” says Ilonidis —but he believes it is just a matter of time before refinements in their algorithm allow routine detection of hidden sunspots.

The original research reported in this story may be found in Science magazine: “Detection of Emerging Sunspot Regions in the Solar Interior” by Ilonidis, Zhao and Kosovichev, 333 (6045): 993-996.

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

Spacecraft Sees Solar Storm Engulf Earth

Spacecraft Sees Solar Storm Engulf Earth – NASA Science.

August 18, 2011: For the first time, a spacecraft far from Earth has turned and watched a solar storm engulf our planet. The movie, released today during a NASA press conference, has galvanized solar physicists, who say it could lead to important advances in space weather forecasting.

“The movie sent chills down my spine,” says Craig DeForest of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.  “It shows a CME swelling into an enormous wall of plasma and then washing over the tiny blue speck of Earth where we live.  I felt very small.”

CME Engulfs Earth (splash, 558px)

A wide-angle movie recorded by NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft shows a solar storm traveling all the way from the sun to Earth and engulfing our planet. A 17 MB Quicktime zoom adds perspective to the main 40 MB Quicktime movie.

CMEs are billion-ton clouds of solar plasma launched by the same explosions that spark solar flares.   When they sweep past our planet, they can cause auroras, radiation storms, and in extreme cases power outages.  Tracking these clouds and predicting their arrival is an important part of space weather forecasting.

“We have seen CMEs before, but never quite like this,” says  Lika Guhathakurta, program scientist for the STEREO mission at NASA headquarters.  “STEREO-A has given us a new view of solar storms.”

STEREO-A is one of two spacecraft launched in 2006 to observe solar activity from widely-spaced locations. At the time of the storm, STEREO-A was more than 65 million miles from Earth, giving it the “big picture” view other spacecraft in Earth orbit have been missing.

When CMEs first leave the sun, they are bright and easy to see. Visibility is quickly reduced, however, as the clouds expand into the void.  By the time a typical CME crosses the orbit of Venus, it is a billion times fainter than the surface of the full Moon, and more than a thousand times fainter than the Milky Way.  CMEs that reach Earth are almost as gossamer as vacuum itself and correspondingly transparent.

CME Engulfs Earth (signup)

“Pulling these faint clouds out of the confusion of starlight and interplanetary dust has been an enormous challenge,” says DeForest.

Indeed, it took almost three years for his team to learn how to do it. Footage of the storm released today was recorded back in December 2008, and they have been working on it ever since.  Now that the technique has been perfected, it can be applied on a regular basis without such a long delay.

Alysha Reinard of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center explains the benefits for space weather forecasting:

“Until quite recently, spacecraft could see CMEs only when they were still quite close to the sun. By calculating a CME’s speed during this brief period, we were able to estimate when it would reach Earth. After the first few hours, however, the CME would leave this field of view and after that we were ‘in the dark’ about its progress.”

“The ability to track a cloud continuously from the Sun to Earth is a big improvement,” she continues.  “In the past, our very best predictions of CME arrival times had uncertainties of plus or minus 4 hours,” she continues.  “The kind of movies we’ve seen today could significantly reduce the error bars.”

CME Engulfs Earth (zoom, 200px)

This 17 MB Quicktime zoom adds perspective to the main 40 MB Quicktime movie of the CME engulfing Earth.

The movies pinpoint not only the arrival time of the CME, but also its mass.  From the brightness of the cloud, researchers can calculate the gas density with impressive precision.  Their results for the Dec. 2008 event agreed with actual in situ measurements at the few percent level.  When this technique is applied to future storms, forecasters will be able to estimate its impact with greater confidence.

At the press conference, DeForest pointed out some of the movie’s highlights:   When the CME first left the sun, it was cavernous, with walls of magnetism encircling a cloud of low-density gas.   As the CME crossed the Sun-Earth divide, however, its shape changed.  The CME “snow-plowed” through the solar wind, scooping up material to form a towering wall of plasma. By the time the CME reached Earth, its forward wall was sagging inward under the weight of accumulated gas.

The kind of magnetic transformations revealed by the movie deeply impressed Guhathakurta:  “I have always thought that in heliophysics understanding the magnetic field is equivalent to the ‘dark energy’ problem of astrophysics.  Often, we cannot see the magnetic field, yet it orchestrates almost everything.   These images from STEREO give us a real sense of what the underlying magnetic field is doing.”

All of the speakers at today’s press event stressed that the images go beyond the understanding of a single event.  The inner physics of CMEs have been laid bare for the first time—a development that will profoundly shape theoretical models and computer-generated forecasts of CMEs for many years to come.

“This is what the STEREO mission was launched to do,” concludes Guhathakurta, “and it is terrific to see it live up to that promise.”

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

The Worst Solar Storms in History

The Sun’s Wrath: Worst Solar Storms in History | Sun Storms & Solar Flares | Space Weather, Carrington Event & Bastille Day Flare | Space.com.

Sunspots sketched by Richard Carrington on Sept. 1, 1859.

Credit: Royal Astronomical Society/Richard Carrington via NASA

The Carrington Event of 1859 was the first documented event of a solar flare impacting Earth. The event occurred at 11:18 a.m. EDT on Sept. 1 and is named after Richard Carrington, the solar astronomer who witnessed the event through his private observatory telescope and sketched the sun’s sunspots at the time. The flare was the largest documented solar storm in the last 500 years, NASA scientists have said.

According to NOAA, the Carrington solar storm event sparked major aurora displays that were visible as far south as the Caribbean. It also caused severe interruptions in global telegraph communications, even shocking some telegraph operators and sparking fires when discharges from the lines ignited telegraph paper, according to a NASA description.

1972: Solar Flare vs. AT&T

 

August 1972 solar flare.

Credit: NASA

The major solar flare that erupted on Aug. 4, 1972 knocked out long-distance phone communication across some states, including Illinois, according to a NASA account.

“That event, in fact, caused AT&T to redesign its power system for transatlantic cables,” NASA wrote in the account.

1989: Major Power Failures From Solar Flare

 

Damage from the March 13, 1989 geomagnetic storm caused by an intense solar flare.

Credit: NASA/PSE&G

In March 1989, a powerful solar flare set off a major March 13 power blackout in Canada that left six million people without electricity for nine hours.

According to NASA, the flare disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station and even melted some power transformers in New Jersey. This solar flare was nowhere near the same scale as the Carrington event, NASA scientists said.

Sun's magnetic loops during Bastille Day storm,

Credit: NASA/TRACE

The Bastille Day event takes its name from the French national holiday since it occurred the same day on July 14, 2000. This was a major solar eruption that registered an X5 on the scale of solar flares.

The Bastille Day event caused some satellites to short-circuit and led to some radio blackouts. It remains one of the most highly observed solar storm events and was the most powerful flare since 1989.

Halloween Solar Flare of October 2003

Credit: NASA/SOHO

On Oct. 28, 2003, the sun unleashed a whopper of a solar flare. The intense sun storm was so strong it overwhelmed the spacecraft sensor measuring it. The sensor topped out at X28, already a massive flare), but later analysis found that the flare reached a peak strength of about X45, NASA has said.

The solar storm was part of a string of at least nine major flares over a two-week period.

2006: X-Ray Sun Flare for Xmas

 

Solar Flare Surprise: Pure Hydrogen Shot at Earth

Credit: NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

When a major X-class solar flare erupted on the sun on Dec. 5, 2006, it registered a powerful X9 on the space weather scale.

This storm from the sun “disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes,” according to a NASA description.

The sun storm was so powerful it actually damaged the solar X-ray imager instrument on the GOES 13 satellite that snapped its picture, NOAA officials said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solar Storms Building Toward Peak in 2013

Solar Storms Building Toward Peak in 2013, NASA Predicts | Solar Flares & Storms | Space & Solar Weather | Space.com.

Major Solar Flare of August 9, 2011
This image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the X6.9 solar flare of Aug. 9, 2011 near the western limb (right edge) of the sun.
CREDIT: NASA/SDO/Weather.com

Solar flares like the huge one that erupted on the sun early today (Aug. 9) will only become more common as our sun nears its maximum level of activity in 2013, scientists say.

Tuesday’s flare was the most powerful sun storm since 2006, and was rated an X6.9 on the three-class scale for solar storms (X-Class is strongest, with M-Class in the middle and C-Class being the weakest).

Flares such as this one could become the norm soon, though, as our sun’s 11-year cycle of magnetic activity ramps up, scientists explained. The sun is just coming out of a lull, and scientists expect the next peak of activity in 2013. The current cycle, called Solar Cycle 24, began in 2008.

 

“We still are on the upswing with this recent burst of activity,” said Phil Chamberlin, a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who is a deputy project scientist for the agency’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a sun-studying satellite that launched in February 2010. “We could definitely in the next year or two see more events like this; there’s a potential to see larger events as well.” [Sun’s Wrath: Worst Solar Storms in History]

A more active sun

Earth got lucky with the most recent flare, which wasn’t pointed directly at Earth; therefore, it didn’t send the brunt of its charged particles toward us, but out into space. However, we may not be so fortunate in the future, experts warned.

“We’re in the new cycle, it is building and we’ll see events like this one,” said Joe Kunches, a space scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “They’ll be much more commonplace and we’ll get more used to them.” [Stunning Photos of Solar Flares & Sun Storms]

Spacecraft such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which recorded amazing videos of the Aug. 9 solar flare, and other observatories will be vital in monitoring the sun during its active phase, researchers said.

How sun storms form

Storms brew on the sun when pent-up energy from tangled magnetic field lines is released in the form of light, heat and charged particles. This can create a brightening on the sun called a flare, and is also often accompanied by the release of a cloud of plasma called a coronal mass ejection (CME).

These ejections are the part we Earthlings have to worry about.

As the CME careens through space, it can send a horde of charged particles toward our planet that can damage satellites, endanger astronauts in orbit, and interfere with power systems, communications and other infrastructure on the ground.

“We’re well aware of the difficulties and challenges,” Kunches told SPACE.com. “We know more about the sun than we ever have.”

Can we predict solar storms?

When a big storm occurs, the Space Weather Prediction Center releases a warning to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, emergency managers and agencies responsible for protecting power grids. Then power grids can distribute power and reduce their loads to protect themselves.

Satellite and power companies are also trying to design technology that can better withstand the higher radiation loads unleashed by solar storms.

Still, scientists would like to offer more advanced warnings when big storms are headed our way.

“We’re being reactive, we’re not being proactive,” Chamberlin said. “We don’t know how to predict these things, which would be nice.”

Chamberlin said solar science has come a long way in recent years, though, and the goal of SDO and other NASA projects is to improve our understanding of the sun and our ability to forecast space weather.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Getting Ready for the Next Big Solar Storm

NASA – Getting Ready for the Next Big Solar Storm.

The Sun sets behind power lines. › View larger
Modern power grids are vulnerable to solar storms. Credit: NASA/Martin Stojanovski

June 21, 2011: In Sept. 1859, on the eve of a below-average solar cycle, the sun unleashed one of the most powerful storms in centuries. The underlying flare was so unusual, researchers still aren’t sure how to categorize it. The blast peppered Earth with the most energetic protons in half-a-millennium, induced electrical currents that set telegraph offices on fire, and sparked Northern Lights over Cuba and Hawaii.

This week, officials have gathered at the National Press Club in Washington DC to ask themselves a simple question: What if it happens again?

“A similar storm today might knock us for a loop,” says Lika Guhathakurta, a solar physicist at NASA headquarters. “Modern society depends on high-tech systems such as smart power grids, GPS, and satellite communications–all of which are vulnerable to solar storms.”

She and more than a hundred others are attending the fifth annual Space Weather Enterprise Forum—”SWEF” for short. The purpose of SWEF is to raise awareness of space weather and its effects on society especially among policy makers and emergency responders. Attendees come from the US Congress, FEMA, power companies, the United Nations, NASA, NOAA and more.

As 2011 unfolds, the sun is once again on the eve of a below-average solar cycle—at least that’s what forecasters are saying. The “Carrington event” of 1859 (named after astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the instigating flare) reminds us that strong storms can occur even when the underlying cycle is nominally weak.

In 1859 the worst-case scenario was a day or two without telegraph messages and a lot of puzzled sky watchers on tropical islands.

In 2011 the situation would be more serious. An avalanche of blackouts carried across continents by long-distance power lines could last for weeks to months as engineers struggle to repair damaged transformers. Planes and ships couldn’t trust GPS units for navigation. Banking and financial networks might go offline, disrupting commerce in a way unique to the Information Age. According to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences, a century-class solar storm could have the economic impact of 20 hurricane Katrinas.

As policy makers meet to learn about this menace, NASA researchers a few miles away are actually doing something about it:

“We can now track the progress of solar storms in 3 dimensions as the storms bear down on Earth,” says Michael Hesse, chief of the GSFC Space Weather Lab and a speaker at the forum. “This sets the stage for actionable space weather alerts that could preserve power grids and other high-tech assets during extreme periods of solar activity.”

 

› Play/Download
These 3D Heliospheric animated models, developed by the Community Coordinated Modeling Center based at the Goddard Space Flight Center, show how the June 21, 2011 CME cloud might appear as it sweeps past Earth. Credit: NASA/CCMC

They do it using data from a fleet of NASA spacecraft surrounding the sun. Analysts at the lab feed the information into a bank of supercomputers for processing. Within hours of a major eruption, the computers spit out a 3D movie showing where the storm will go, which planets and spacecraft it will hit, and predicting when the impacts will occur. This kind of “interplanetary forecast” is unprecedented in the short history of space weather forecasting.

“This is a really exciting time to work as a space weather forecaster,” says Antti Pulkkinen, a researcher at the Space Weather Lab. “The emergence of serious physics-based space weather models is putting us in a position to predict if something major will happen.”

Some of the computer models are so sophisticated, they can even predict electrical currents flowing in the soil of Earth when a solar storm strikes. These currents are what do the most damage to power transformers. An experimental project named “Solar Shield” led by Pulkkinen aims to pinpoint transformers in greatest danger of failure during any particular storm.

“Disconnecting a specific transformer for a few hours could forestall weeks of regional blackouts,” says Pulkkinen.

High above planet Earth, astronaut Steven L. Smith makes repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope (not pictured) during STS-130. He is retrieving a power tool from the handrail of the Remote Manipulator System. › View larger
Astronauts like this one on the STS-103 mission are on the front line of stormy space weather. Credit: NASA/STS-103 crew
Another SWEF speaker, John Allen of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, pointed out that while people from all walks of life can be affected by space weather, no one is out on the front lines quite like astronauts.

“Astronauts are routinely exposed to four times as much radiation as industrial radiation workers on Earth,” he says. “It’s a serious occupational hazard.”

NASA keeps careful track of each astronaut’s accumulated dosage throughout their careers. Every launch, every space walk, every solar flare is carefully accounted for. If an astronaut gets too close to the limits … he or she might not be allowed out of the space station! Accurate space weather alerts can help keep these exposures under control by, e.g., postponing spacewalks when flares are likely.

Speaking at the forum, Allen called for a new kind of forecast: “We could use All Clear alerts. In addition to knowing when it’s dangerous to go outside, we’d also like to know when it’s safe. This is another frontier for forecasters–not only telling us when a sunspot will erupt, but also when it won’t.”

The educational mission of SWEF is key to storm preparedness. As Lika Guhathakurta and colleague Dan Baker of the University of Colorado asked in a June 17, 2011 New York Times op-ed: “What good are space weather alerts if people don’t understand them and won’t react to them?”

By spreading the word, SWEF will help.

Related Links:

› SWEF 2011 home page

› Integrated Space Weather Analysis System

› Community Coordinated Modeling Center

› Solar Shield–Protecting the North American Power Grid

› How’s the Weather on the Sun? – New York Times op-ed

› 1859 Carrington Super Flare

The Next Big Solar Storm & End of the Solar Cycle?

Getting Ready for the Next Big Solar Storm – NASA Science.

June 21, 2011: In Sept. 1859, on the eve of a below-average1 solar cycle, the sun unleashed one of the most powerful storms in centuries. The underlying flare was so unusual, researchers still aren’t sure how to categorize it.  The blast peppered Earth with the most energetic protons in half-a-millennium, induced electrical currents that set telegraph offices on fire, and sparked Northern Lights over Cuba and Hawaii.

This week, officials have gathered at the National Press Club in Washington DC to ask themselves a simple question: What if it happens again?

SWEF (powerlines, 200px)

Modern power grids are vulnerable to solar storms. Photo credit: Martin Stojanovski

“A similar storm today might knock us for a loop,” says Lika Guhathakurta, a solar physicist at NASA headquarters. “Modern society depends on high-tech systems such as smart power grids, GPS, and satellite communications–all of which are vulnerable to solar storms.”

She and more than a hundred others are attending the fifth annual Space Weather Enterprise Forum—”SWEF” for short.  The purpose of SWEF is to raise awareness of space weather and its effects on society especially among policy makers and emergency responders.  Attendees come from the US Congress, FEMA, power companies, the United Nations, NASA, NOAA and more.

As 2011 unfolds, the sun is once again on the eve of a below-average solar cycle—at least that’s what forecasters are saying.  The “Carrington event” of 1859 (named after astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the instigating flare) reminds us that strong storms can occur even when the underlying cycle is nominally weak.

In 1859 the worst-case scenario was a day or two without telegraph messages and a lot of puzzled sky watchers on tropical islands.

In 2011 the situation would be more serious. An avalanche of blackouts carried across continents by long-distance power lines could last for weeks to months as engineers struggle to repair damaged transformers. Planes and ships couldn’t trust GPS units for navigation.  Banking and financial networks might go offline, disrupting commerce in a way unique to the Information Age.  According to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences, a century-class solar storm could have the economic impact of 20 hurricane Katrinas.

As policy makers meet to learn about this menace, NASA researchers a few miles away are actually doing something about it:

“We can now track the progress of solar storms in 3 dimensions as the storms bear down on Earth,” says Michael Hesse, chief of the GSFC Space Weather Lab and a speaker at the forum.  “This sets the stage for actionable space weather alerts that could preserve power grids and other high-tech assets during extreme periods of solar activity.”

SWEF (3D CME, 558px)

Analysts at the GSFC Space Weather Lab created this 3D forecast-model of a coronal mass ejection (CME) heading for Earth on June 21st. Click here to watch the CME sweep past our planet.

They do it using data from a fleet of NASA spacecraft surrounding the sun.  Analysts at the lab feed the information into a bank of supercomputers for processing.  Within hours of a major eruption, the computers spit out a 3D movie showing where the storm will go, which planets and spacecraft it will hit, and predicting when the impacts will occur.  This kind of “interplanetary forecast” is unprecedented in the short history of space weather forecasting.

“This is a really exciting time to work as a space weather forecaster,” says Antti Pulkkinen, a researcher at the Space Weather Lab.  “The emergence of serious physics-based space weather models is putting us in a position to predict if something major will happen.”

Some of the computer models are so sophisticated, they can even predict electrical currents flowing in the soil of Earth when a solar storm strikes.  These currents are what do the most damage to power transformers.  An experimental project named “Solar Shield” led by Pulkkinen aims to pinpoint transformers in greatest danger of failure during any particular storm.

“Disconnecting a specific transformer for a few hours could forestall weeks of regional blackouts,” says Pulkkinen.

Another SWEF speaker, John Allen of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, pointed out that while people from all walks of life can be affected by space weather, no one is out on the front lines quite like astronauts.

“Astronauts are routinely exposed to four times as much radiation as industrial radiation workers on Earth,” he says.  “It’s a serious occupational hazard.”

SWEF (astronaut, 200px)

Astronauts are on the front line of stormy space weather.

NASA keeps careful track of each astronaut’s accumulated dosage throughout their careers.  Every launch, every space walk, every solar flare is carefully accounted for.  If an astronaut gets too close to the limits … he or she might not be allowed out of the space station!  Accurate space weather alerts can help keep these exposures under control by, e.g., postponing spacewalks when flares are likely.

Speaking at the forum, Allen called for a new kind of forecast: “We could use All Clear alerts. In addition to knowing when it’s dangerous to go outside, we’d also like to know when it’s safe.  This is another frontier for forecasters–not only telling us when a sunspot will erupt, but also when it won’t.”

The educational mission of SWEF is key to storm preparedness. As Lika Guhathakurta and colleague Dan Baker of the University of Colorado asked in a June 17th New York Times op-ed: “What good are space weather alerts if people don’t understand them and won’t react to them?”

By spreading the word, SWEF will help.

More information about the meeting, including a complete program of speakers, may be found at the SWEF 2011 home page.

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

 

AND

End of the Sunspot Cycle?

Things may be about to get very dull on the sun. Three different measurements of solar activity, reported by scientists at a press conference today, suggest that the next 11-year-long solar cycle will be far quieter than the current one. In fact, it may not happen at all: Sunspots, the enormous magnetic storms that erupt on the sun’s surface as the cycle builds, might disappear entirely for the first time in approximately 400 years.

If the reported trends continue—a big if, other researchers note—a hibernating sun would have only a slight cooling effect on climate. But solar storms hurtling toward Earth that can disrupt satellites, power grids, and other electronics, would be much subdued, giving scientists a chance to study the sun in a phase unseen in modern times. For centuries, solar activity has been swinging from solar maximum (lots of dark sunspots, solar flares, and massive ejections of plasma, some aimed at Earth) to a far quieter solar minimum every 11 years or so. The current solar cycle, dubbed number 24 (it’s the 24th solar cycle since 1755, when sunspot activity began being recorded), has just gotten off to a late, slow start in the past year as more sunspots appear.

At the press conference, held at the annual meeting of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society in Las Cruces, New Mexico, three scientists gave a forecast of sorts for the next solar cycle, number 25. “Cycle 24 may be the last normal one for some time,” said solar physicist Frank Hill of the National Solar Observatory (NSO) in Tucson, Arizona, “and the next one, cycle 25, may not happen. The solar cycle may be going into hiatus, like a TV show.” Hill and colleagues reported on a jet-stream-like flow within the sun that they have been monitoring since 1995 using “helioseismology,” the study of sun-wide oscillations of the solar surface. They expected the next cycle’s jet to appear in 2008 or 2009, but it’s still a no-show.

Another still-missing harbinger of the next solar cycle is the rapid march of magnetic activity toward the poles in the sun’s very hot but faint gaseous corona high above the visible surface. Richard Altrock of NSO in Sunspot, New Mexico, showed a 40-year record that suggested this “rush to the poles” is far behind schedule in the current cycle. That might mean that this cycle will not clear the decks, magnetically speaking, to make room for the next cycle. In that case, “it’s not clear what would happen” in the next cycle, Altrock said.

And Matthew Penn of NSO in Tucson and colleagues reported a trend in the intensity of the magnetic field of sunspots as gauged using a ground-based telescope during 13 years. The stronger a spot’s magnetic field, the darker the spot. Below a certain field strength, a spot will fade away. Penn finds that the typical field strength of spots began declining in the past cycle and continues to decline in this cycle. Assuming the trend continues, the maximum of the current cycle would have half as many sunspots as the previous cycle did, and the next cycle would have no spots at all, he said.

Taken together, the scientists say, the three trends suggest that no visible solar cycle will begin at the next expected start time, around 2020. Such a gap last happened during the Maunder Minimum 400 years ago. But other researchers are cool to the idea. Solar physicist Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, notes that success forecasting solar activity a few years out has been modest at best; forecasting a decade or two out would be even trickier. “The data is very limited as yet, only one or two cycles,” she says, making prediction difficult.

Dikpati and space physicist Yi-Ming Wang of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., also interpret some of the physics underlying the three observed trends differently from the three forecasters. In their alternative interpretations, the trends are of little help in forecasting. All in all, writes space physicist Judith Lean of NRL in an e-mail, the understanding of the sun’s behavior “is so uncertain that projections far into the future are more or less speculation.”

The International Space Weather Initiative

The International Space Weather Initiative – NASA Science.

A key problem organizers hope to solve is a gap–many gaps, actually—in storm coverage around our planet. When a big storm is underway, waves of ionization ripple through Earth’s upper atmosphere, electric currents flow through the topsoil, and the whole planet’s magnetic field begins to shake.

“These are global phenomena,” says Davila, “so we need to be able to monitor them all around the world.”

Industrialized countries tend to have an abundance of monitoring stations.  They can keep track of local magnetism, ground currents, and ionization, and provide the data to researchers.  Developing countries are where the gaps are, particularly at low latitudes around Earth’s magnetic equator.

Although space weather is usually associated with Earth’s polar regions–think, “Northern Lights”–the equator can be just as interesting. For example, there is a phenomenon in Earth’s upper atmosphere called the “equatorial anomaly.”  It is, essentially, a fountain of ionization that circles the globe once a day, always keeping its spout toward the sun. During solar storms, the equatorial anomaly can intensify and shape-shift, bending GPS signals in unexpected ways and making normal radio communications impossible.

“International cooperation is essential for keeping track of the equatorial anomaly,” he adds.  “No single country can do it alone.”

It’s no coincidence that the inaugural meeting of the ISWI is being held in Egypt, an equatorial country.  Of 30 nations sending representatives to the ISWI, more than two-thirds are clustered around the magnetic equator.  This could lead to a revolution in studies of low-latitude space weather.

ISWI (project map, 550px)

A map of ISWI-brokered space weather monitoring stations. Prospective participants should visit the ISWI home page to learn more about available projects and how to become involved.

There is much to do beyond the equator, too. During the meeting, researchers and students will learn how they can set up monitoring stations for cosmic rays, ground currents, magnetic storms, and auroras.  There’s a phenomenon for every latitude and level of expertise.

“We are offering a whole buffet of research opportunities,” says Davila.

Researchers who miss the first meeting will get many more chances.  The International Space Weather Initiative is an ongoing program with get-togethers planned on an annual basis at different spots around the world.  The next meeting will be held in Nigeria in November 2011.

No country is too remote, too small, or too poor to participate.  Indeed, notes Davila, “the smallest most out of the way places are often where data are needed most.  Everyone is invited.”

Interested? Details and contact information may be found at the ISWI home page: http://iswi-secretariat.org/

Sun storm to hit with 'force of 100m bombs'

http://www.news.com.au/technology/sun-storm-to-hit-with-force-of-100-bombs/story-e6frfro0-1225909999465

AFTER 10 years of comparative slumber, the sun is waking up – and it’s got astronomers on full alert.

This week several US media outlets reported that NASA was warning the massive flare that caused spectacular light shows on Earth earlier this month was just a precursor to a massive solar storm building that had the potential to wipe out the entire planet’s power grid.

NASA has since rebutted those reports, saying it could come “100 years away or just 100 days”, but an Australian astronomer says the space community is betting on the sooner scenario rather than the latter.

Despite its rebuttal, NASA’s been watching out for this storm since 2006 and reports from the US this week claim the storms could hit on that most Hollywood of disaster dates – 2012.

Related Coverage

Similar storms back in 1859 and 1921 caused worldwide chaos, wiping out telegraph wires on a massive scale.

The 2012 storm has the potential to be even more disruptive.

“The general consensus among general astronomers (and certainly solar astronomers) is that this coming Solar maximum (2012 but possibly later into 2013) will be the most violent in 100 years,” astronomy lecturer and columnist Dave Reneke said.

“A bold statement and one taken seriously by those it will affect most, namely airline companies, communications companies and anyone working with modern GPS systems.

“They can even trip circuit breakers and knock out orbiting satellites, as has already been done this year.”

Regardless, the point astronomers are making is it doesn’t matter if the next Solar Max isn’t the worst in history, or even as bad as the 1859 storms.

It’s the fact that there hasn’t been one since the mid-80s. Commodore had just launched the Amiga and the only digital storm making the news was Tetris.

No one really knows what effect the 2012-2013 Solar Max will have on today’s digital-reliant society.

Dr Richard Fisher, director of NASA’s Heliophysics division, told Mr Reneke the super storm would hit like “a bolt of lightning”, causing catastrophic consequences for the world’s health, emergency services and national security unless precautions are taken.

US government officials earlier this year took part in a “tabletop exercise” in Boulder, Colorado, to map out what might happen if the Earth was hit with a storm as intense as the 1859 and 1921 storms.

The 1859 storm was of a similar size to that predicted by NASA to hit within the next three years – one of decreased activity, but more powerful eruptions.

NASA said that a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a similar storm occurred today, it could cause “$1 to 2 trillion in damages to society’s high-tech infrastructure and require four to 10 years for complete recovery”.

Staff at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado, which hosted the exercise, said with our reliance on satellite technology, such an event could hit the Earth with the magnitude of a global hurricane or earthquake.

The reason for the concern comes as the sun enters a phase known as Solar Cycle 24.

All the alarming news building around the event is being fuelled by two things.

The first is a book by disaster expert Lawrence E. Joseph, Guilty of Apocalypse: The Case Against 2012, in which he claims the “Hurricane Katrina for the Earth” may cause unprecedented planetwide upheaval.

The second is a theory that claims sunspots travel through the sun on a “conveyor belt” similar to the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt which controls weather on Earth.

The belt carries magnetic fields through the sun. When they hit the surface, they explode as sunspots.

Weakened, they then travel back through the sun’s core to recharge.

It all happens on a rough 40-50-year cycle, according to solar physicist David Hathaway of the National Space Science and Technology Center in the US.

He says when the belt speeds up, lots of magnetic fields are collected, which points to more intense future activity.

“The belt was turning fast in 1986-1996,” Prof Hathaway said.

“Old magnetic fields swept up then should reappear as big sunspots in 2010-2011.”

Most experts agree, although those who put the date of Solar Max in 2012 are getting the most press.

They claim satellites will be aged by 50 years, rendering GPS even more useless than ever, and the blast will have the equivalent energy of 100 million hydrogen bombs.

“We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Dr Fisher told Mr Reneke in the most recent issue of Australasian Science.

“Systems will just not work. The flares change the magnetic field on the Earth and it’s rapid, just like a lightning bolt.

“That’s the solar effect.”