Sunday, January 29, 2012

New Space Weather Capability

Hey Space Placers!

I think the civilized world (anyone with Internet/TV) learned this week that space weather exists and the Sun does impact our daily lives. This awareness was due to a large solar flare and resulting coronal mass ejection (see my blogs this past week) that generated the most powerful solar radiation storm since 2005.

Our modern infrastructure - GPS, communications, satellites, power grid, and astronauts can all be effected by space weather. The Sun is showing signs of solar maximum activity with this week's events, and we have at least another 20 months to predicted maximum.

The good news is that we have a fleet of new spacecraft that gives us far better technical capability AND 24x7 and 360 degree coverage. SDO, SOHO and STEREO A and B now monitor the Sun simultaneously with multiple instruments and the latter two can even be the far side of the Sun so we can see what is coming.

All of this technical capability/data needs methods to interpret and thereby forecast what the acquired data means to our space weather. There is good news here as well - NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) has the Space Weather Laboratory (SWL) working to develop the methods necessary to predict space weather.

From NASA GSFC's press release: "Goddard’s Space Weather Laboratory recently received support under NASA’s Space Technology Program Game Changing Program to implement “ensemble forecasting,” a computer technique already used by meteorologists to track potential paths and impacts of hurricanes andother severe weather events. Instead of analyzing one set of solar-storm conditions, as is the case now, Goddard forecasters will be able to simultaneously produce asmany as 100 computerized forecasts by calculating multiple possible conditions or, in the parlance of heliophysicists, parameters. "

"Just as important, they will be able to do this quickly and use the information to provide alerts of space weather storms that could potentially be harmful to astronauts and NASA spacecraft. “Space weather alerts are available now, but we want to make them better,” said Michael Hesse, chief of Goddard’s Space Weather Laboratory and the recently named director of the Center’s Heliophysics Science Division. “Ensemble forecasting will provide a distribution of arrival times, which will improve the reliability of forecasts. This is important. Society is relying more so than ever on space. Communications, navigation, electrical-power generation, all are all susceptible to space weather.” Once it’s implemented, “there will be nothing like this in the world. No one has done ensemble forecasting for space weather.”

In closing from GSFC SWL, "When this forecasting technique is verified and validated by NASA’s
Space Weather Laboratory, the capability will be made available to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, which is responsible for issuing national space weather alerts. NASA’s goal to understand and track space weather activity will enable a greatly enhanced forecasting capability for U.S. interests."

So, as the Sun proceeds towards solar maximum, we will monitor the Sun and refine our ability to forecast the space weather that results. 

Sky Guy in VA

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