Studying weather in space helps researchers predict weather here on Earth.
The idea of studying weather might call to mind local meteorologists pointing at a big map, reporting school delays and igniting community ire when good science proves imperfect. But studying the weather can also reveal valuable lessons about life on our planet, and other planets too.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government agency tasked with monitoring and reporting dangerous weather from the sky and sea, will launch its first satellite in 2015. DSCOVR, or the Deep Space Climate Observatory, is currently expected to launch no earlier than February 8.
Just like NOAA does on the ground, DSCOVR will track perilous weather and send appropriate warnings by monitoring sun flares, winds and coronal masses one million miles from the earth’s gravitational neutral zone.
DSCOVR’s strategic distance provides NOAA’s Maryland-based operations facility approximately one hour advance notice of solar activity that can disrupt the earth’s communications systems and power grids. DSCOVR will also allow NOAA to better predict where on Earth such solar events will have an impact. The advanced warning will help protect critical systems tied to national security and economic infrastructure.
It’s not just NOAA of course. NASA, the government agency most familiar with space, has its own research arm in space weather. Dr. Lika Guhathakurta helps plan such missions for Living With a Star, a NASA initiative that aims to understand the relationship between the earth and the sun, along with the rest of the solar system.
The sun plays the most critical role in our current understanding of space weather, as it offers a “lab” in our own backyard.
“[Space weather] is the impact of heliophysics,” Guhathakurta said. “It studies the sun and its interaction with our planet, particularly the outer layers of our planet—the ionosphere, the magnetosphere—which interact with electrical particles and radiation. From that understanding, what has emerged is interplanetary space weather.”
In other words, studying space weather helps determine the probability of life beyond Earth. “What makes life possible on exoplanets? Habitability of a planet is very much dependent on its star and the planet’s own environment,” she said.
NASA’s newest mission Solar Probe Plus “will change the way we understand the sun and our interaction with our planet,” said Guhathakurta. “The solar probe will travel within 10 million miles of the sun, almost touching the sun. This is where space weather is born, where particles are energized and where [we can] measure their velocity locally and not through a telescope.”
The solar-powered craft, built from heat-resistant reinforced carbon-carbon, weighs a little over half a ton and features a gold shield to protect the craft’s instruments in an environment 500 times the solar intensity of a near-Earth orbit. This design may sound familiar to anyone who has seen Danny Boyle’s 2007 space drama “Sunshine.”
While NASA’s next mission, the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, stays within Earth’s near-space environment, according to Guhathakurta, it’s still ambitious. “This particular mission is going after understanding one of the most fundamental physical processes: magnetic reconnection,” she said.
Magnetic reconnection is the phenomenon of magnetic energy converting to other forms of energy like kinetic and thermal.
MMS will use four coordinated spacecrafts to study magnetic reconnection, particle acceleration and turbulence within the planet’s magnetosphere, all of which are critical processes in the study of space weather.
Research groups worldwide work with data coming in from NASA, NOAA and ESA satellites and space probes to predict solar storms several hours to a few days in advance.
As part of the DEEP project, Intel partners with Professor Giovanni Lapenta of KU Leuven on the iPIC3D space weather simulation code. Hans-Christian Hoppe, a principal engineer with Intel and the director of the ExaCluster Lab in Jülich, Germany, said the code, which is powered on Intel Xeon Phi, simulates the behavior of plasma (ionized particles similar to gas) and its interaction with electromagnetic fields. Scientists can predict paths the particles will take after a solar eruption or flare, and simulate the interaction with the magnetosphere.
Space weather can be studied even closer to home, and you don’t have to be a research scientist to collect data and add to our knowledge of such cosmic phenomena.
The non-profit research body New Mexico Consortium (NMC) recently launched the Aurorasaurus program, founded by NMC research scientist Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald. Aurorasaurus aims to help scientists better understand the beautiful aurora borealis, or northern lights, the visual phenomenon caused by charged space particles exciting the upper atmosphere’s neutral particles.
Despite how the northern lights capture the public imagination, the science community has yet to understand precisely what creates their lively shapes or solar-driven strength.
Much like crowdsourced satellite tracking stations, Aurorasaurus wants the public’s assistance tracking auroras using social media over the course of 2015, the peak of the 11-year solar cycle. The NMC says such data collection will help to “allow actionable, up to the minute understanding of auroral activity.”
Aurorasaurus has developed apps to let the general public report and verify auroral activity. This provides researchers a wealth of data points to accompany their own observations.
“Using citizen science and real time data, [Aurorasaurus] can operate at scale and change the way we provide information about solar storms, which will allow a more accurate ‘nowcast’ of the visibility of the northern lights for the public,” MacDonald said.
Just like you can call into your local TV station with a storm tip, you can observe space weather on the ground and have an immediate impact on human life — not to mention an impact on your imagination.