Scientists Explore Impacts of Space Weather on Earth

BOULDER, Colorado, April 26, 2006 (ENS) - The nation's largest ever conference on space weather opened Tuesday here with more than 300 representatives from industry, academia and government considering the effects of conditions millions of miles away that can disrupt power grids, impact aviation, and damage satellites orbiting the Earth.

Space weather originates on the Sun where activity on the surface, such as solar flares, can cause high levels of radiation in space. A geomagnetic storm occurs when unusually strong surges of solar wind containing charged particles from the Sun, hit the Earth, causing variations in the Earth's magnetic field.


Astronaut John Phillips spent six months aboard the International Space Station in 2005. (Photo courtesy NASA)
NASA Astronaut John Phillips is a special guest speaker at the conference. A former Navy pilot, Phillips joined NASA in 1996 where he flew aboard STS-100/Endeavour in 2001. He served a six-month tour of duty aboard the International Space Station in 2005. Phillips will discuss life onboard the Space Station with an emphasis on-orbit dosimetry, radiation shielding and shelter concepts during solar radiation storms.

What can happen on Earth as a result of space weather was demonstrated January 20, 2005, when the most intense burst of solar radiation in 50 years accompanied a large solar flare. It shook space weather theory and highlighted the need for new forecasting techniques.

The solar flare tripped radiation monitors all over the planet and scrambled detectors on spacecraft. The shower of energetic protons came minutes after the first sign of the flare. This flare was an extreme example of the type of radiation storm that arrives too quickly to warn interplanetary astronauts.

"This flare produced the largest solar radiation signal on the ground in nearly 50 years," said Dr. Richard Mewaldt of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California. He is a co-investigator on NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft. "But we were really surprised when we saw how fast the particles reached their peak intensity and arrived at Earth."


Solar flares (Photo courtesy NASA)
Normally it takes two or more hours for a dangerous proton shower to reach maximum intensity at Earth after a solar flare. The particles from the January 20 flare peaked about 15 minutes after the first sign.

"That's important because it's too fast to respond with much warning to astronauts or spacecraft that might be outside Earth's protective magnetosphere," Mewaldt said. "In addition to monitoring the Sun, we need to develop the ability to predict flares in advance if we are going to send humans to explore our solar system."

The conference in Boulder is one step towards developing that ability. It is co-sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Environment Center, NASA's Heliophysics Division and the National Science Foundation's Division of Atmospheric Science.

The program highlights space weather impacts in communications, navigation, spacecraft operations, aviation and electric power, and focuses on the challenges facing space exploration in the coming years.

Conference presentations “focus on identifying the highest-priority needs for operational services that can guide future research,” said Louis Uccellini, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction, “and identifying new high-value capabilities that can be transitioned into operations."

Representatives from U.S. airlines will present details on recent space weather impacts and address the importance of NOAA space weather services to safe and efficient flight operations, especially over the poles.

Cold temperatures are a concern for polar operations, but space weather can be an even bigger problem in polar flying.

How space weather affects navigation systems is also a concern. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a worldwide radio-navigation system formed from a constellation of 24 satellites and their ground stations. GPS uses the satellites as reference points to calculate positions on the ground accurate to a matter of meters. Space weather disturbances in the ionosphere seriously degrade GPS accuracy.


This picture shows solar ultraviolet radiation scattered from ionized helium in the Earth's extended atmosphere. The ionized helium envelope is two to three times the size of the Earth. Irregularities at the fringe of the image (upper left) indicate magnetic storm activity. (Photo recorded by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager aboard NASA's Imager for Magnetopause to Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) spacecraft, June 2000.)
Government and commercial use of GPS technology is growing, and GPS satellite signals travel through a part of the Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere to receivers on or near Earth.

"Efforts to measure and model the ionosphere have been under way for years,” said Bill Murtagh, conference coordinator and a space weather forecaster at the NOAA Space Environment Center, and “some major undertakings are coming to fruition. Results will be presented this week."

"What began in 1996 as a conference for the space weather user community, Space Weather Week has evolved into the nation's leading conference on all issues relating to space weather," Murtagh said.

In 2006, several new space environment sensors are scheduled for launch and will be highlighted at the conference. Details of the new GOES-N spacecraft, the first in a new GOES series, will be revealed.

"An exciting new addition on GOES-N is the extreme ultra-violet (EUV) sensor," said Murtagh. "The new EUV measurements will help assess satellite drag, and will aid in evaluating and predicting effects of solar weather on radio communications and satellite navigation."

Some conference sessions will focus on the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC), which is poised to gather a wealth of ionospheric data.

NASA's two-year Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) mission will provide new three-dimensional measurements of solar eruptions is also a focus of interest at the conference.

Imagery from STEREO will be valuable for geomagnetic storm warnings and vital for the stability of electric power grids.

Solar Cycle predictions will be reviewed at the conference. Every 11 years there are noticeable spots on the surface of the Sun. The spots decline to a minimum and then rise to a maximum on this 11 year cycle. Solar cycle predictions are important to space industries, because spacecraft designers need to specify the space environment at least 18 years into the future.

For basic background information on space weather, visit: