Solar storm forecasting system developed by ‘citizen-scientists’ could help prevent damage to satellites and power grids and protect astronauts from harmful radiation
- Members of the public helped to analyse so-called coronal mass ejections
- These are releases of charged particles and magnetic field from the Sun
- From the analysis, the team were able to devise new and powerful models
- This will allow them to predict space weather with 29 per cent more accuracy
Members of the public acting as ‘citizen scientists’ have aided experts developing a new system for forecasting when potentially dangerous solar storms will hit Earth.
Physicists from Reading enlisted help to analyse so-called ‘coronal mass ejections’ (CMEs) — powerful expulsions of charged particles and magnetic field from the Sun.
When they reach Earth, in as little as 15 hours, CMEs have the potential to damage electrical equipment — from orbiting satellites to ground-based energy grids.
A solar storm in 1859, for example — the ‘Carrington Event’ — induced such currents in telegraph wires that pylons sparked and operators received electric shocks.
Predicting when these storms occur could help governments and companies protect satellites, the power grid and communications infrastructure from surges.
Detecting weather in space is also important for safeguarding the health of astronauts — who can receive harmful doses of radiation if unshielded from storms.
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Members of the public acting as ‘citizen scientists’ have aided experts developing a new system for forecasting when potentially dangerous solar storms will hit Earth. Physicists from Reading enlisted help to analyse so-called ‘coronal mass ejections’ (CMEs), pictured — powerful expulsions of charged particles and magnetic field from the Sun’s surface
‘CMEs are sausage-shaped blobs made up of billions of tonnes of magnetised plasma that erupt from the Sun’s atmosphere at a million miles an hour,’ said space weather researcher Luke Barnard of the University of Reading.
‘They are capable of damaging satellites, overloading power grids and exposing astronauts to harmful radiation. Predicting when they are on a collision course with Earth is therefore extremely important.’
But this, he explained, ‘is made difficult by the fact the speed and direction of CMEs vary wildly and are affected by solar wind, and they constantly change shape as they travel through space.’
The researchers used computer models to predict when solar storms will arrive at Earth, using analysis provided by members of the public involved in the ‘Solar Stormwatch’ citizen science project.
They said that their models are able to run up to 200 different simulations — compared to the 20-odd currently used by more complex models.
The researchers found their forecasts to be 20 per cent more accurate, providing improved estimates of the solar wind speed and its impact on CME movement.
When they reach Earth, in as little as 15 hours, CMEs have the potential to damage electrical equipment — from orbiting satellites to ground-based energy grids. Pictured, a CME as seen from either side of the Sun’s surface, captured by the two STEREO spacecraft. The red and pink lines represent the outlines as traced by citizen scientists
‘Solar storm forecasts are currently based on observations of coronal mass ejections as soon as they leave the Sun’s surface, meaning they come with a large degree of uncertainty,’ explained Dr Barnard.
‘The volunteer data offered a second stage of observations at a point when the CME was more established, which gave a better idea of its shape and trajectory.’
‘The value of additional CME observations demonstrates how useful it would be to include cameras on board spacecraft in future space weather monitoring missions.’
‘More accurate predictions could help prevent catastrophic damage to our infrastructure and could even save lives,’ he concluded.
‘The only thing more unpredictable than British weather is space weather,’ said UK Space Agency head of space science, Caroline Harper.
‘Fortunately for life on Earth, most solar flares are not emitted in the direction of our home planet and they typically take between one and three days to reach us.’
“We already have a UK-built spacecraft called Solar Orbiter on its way to the Sun to improve space weather science.’
‘Together with the help of this volunteer army of citizen scientists, we will improve our prediction of solar storms, which means we can better protect satellites and important infrastructure vital to our everyday lives.’
The full findings of the study were published in the journal AGU Advances.
SOLAR STORMS PRESENT A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES
Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:
- Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.
- Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth.
- High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth.
- Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact.
While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.
However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.
This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections
The damage caused by solar storms
Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.
The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.
Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.
When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.
They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.
A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.
This could shut off businesses and homes around the world.
Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather