Science gets a new weather forecaster for space

Boston University lab will alert to solar storms – a foe of communication.

Regional blackouts, botched ship navigation, interrupted long-distance calls, damaged satellites, even rusting oil pipelines – all have been traced at one time or another to stormy "space weather."

Now, the federal government is spending $20 million on a new center that aims to improve forecasts of solar outbursts, minimizing their effects on humans and their technology.

Dubbed the Integrated Center for Space Weather Modeling, the new operation will provide up to a few days' warning so that satellite operators, astronauts in orbit, and others affected by solar outbursts can prepare for a solar storm.

"In space weather, we're about where weather forecasters were 40 years ago," says Tim Killeen, one of the new center's lead researchers. "But we have the advantage that the computing power and the modeling know-how already exist."

Currently, space-weather forecasts are issued by the US Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colo. But present forecast models are far from perfect. None of them yet includes all of the conditions that comprise the space-weather puzzle. Some of those missing pieces will require research on poorly studied regions of the near-Earth environment.

The new center, housed at Boston University, will in effect become the National Space Weather Program's R&D arm, taking a role similar to NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, which develops new approaches to terrestrial weather forecasting. It will draw on expertise and unique research hardware, from 10 other labs around the country.

The center's emergence comes at a time when human reliance on satellites is growing. They're used for everything from paging Grandma to finding the way to Grandma's house in automobiles equipped with global-positioning satellite receivers. Ships, airliners, and desert-trained troops also rely heavily on GPS systems. Indeed, during Operation Desert Storm a decade ago, a solar storm temporarily disrupted the military's GPS-based navigation systems.

For millenniums, humans have seen these awe-inspiring storms manifested as aurora. But an appreciation for the damaging effects of space weather began to emerge in 1962, when NASA's Mariner 2 spacecraft displayed an odd variation in its flight speed far beyond Earth. The changes were induced by shifts in the solar wind, a constant flow of charged particles from the sun.

These charged particles routinely get deflected by Earth's magnetic field. But intense solar outbursts – flares, coronal mass ejections, coronal holes, and solar prominences – are the cosmic equivalent of high winds on Earth. In space, they distort the shape of Earth's protective magnetic field, leaving some satellites temporarily outside its protection. They also can raise radiation exposure to dangerous levels for astronauts – a consideration planners take into account in designing space-station components or missions to the moon.

Another effect of these storms: They can raise the height of the atmosphere just enough to induce drag on craft or satellites in low-Earth orbit.

Earth is also affected. On the ground, the interaction of charged particles from the sun with Earth's magnetic field can induce electrical currents in metal objects, overloading power lines, and occasionally knocking out entire grids.

"We are confident that, with the knowledge base and the advanced computer technology now available, we can create the first integrated predictive space-weather model within the next 10 years," says Charles Goodrich, deputy director of the new center.

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