Dr. Tony Phillips
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Earth and space are about to come into contact in a way that’s new to human history. To make preparations, authorities in Washington DC are holding a meeting: The Space Weather Enterprise Forum at the National Press Club on June 8th.
Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, explains what it’s all about:
“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss.”
The National Academy of Sciences framed the problem two years ago in a landmark report entitled “Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts.” It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.
Much of the damage can be mitigated if managers know a storm is coming. Putting satellites in ‘safe mode’ and disconnecting transformers can protect these assets from damaging electrical surges. Preventative action, however, requires accurate forecasting—a job that has been assigned to NOAA.
“Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we’re making rapid progress,” says Thomas Bogdan, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.
Bogdan sees the collaboration between NASA and NOAA as key. “NASA’s fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft provides us with up-to-the-minute information about what’s happening on the sun. They are an important complement to our own GOES and POES satellites, which focus more on the near-Earth environment.”
Among dozens of NASA spacecraft, he notes three of special significance: STEREO, SDO and ACE.
STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) is a pair of spacecraft stationed on opposite sides of the sun with a combined view of 90% of the stellar surface. In the past, active sunspots could hide out on the sun’s farside, invisible from Earth, and then suddenly emerge over the limb spitting flares and CMEs. STEREO makes such surprise attacks impossible.
SDO (the Solar Dynamics Observatory) is the newest addition to NASA’s fleet. Just launched in February, it is able to photograph solar active regions with unprecedented spectral, temporal and spatial resolution. Researchers can now study eruptions in exquisite detail, raising hopes that they will learn how flares work and how to predict them. SDO also monitors the sun’s extreme UV output, which controls the response of Earth’s atmosphere to solar variability.
Bogdan’s favorite NASA satellite, however, is an old one: the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) launched in 1997. “Where would we be without it?” he wonders. ACE is a solar wind monitor. It sits upstream between the sun and Earth, detecting solar wind gusts, billion-ton CMEs, and radiation storms as much as 30 minutes before they hit our planet.
“ACE is our best early warning system,” says Bogdan. “It allows us to notify utility and satellite operators when a storm is about to hit.”
NASA spacecraft were not originally intended for operational forecasting—”but it turns out that our data have practical economic and civil uses,” notes Fisher. “This is a good example of space science supporting modern society.”
2010 marks the 4th year in a row that policymakers, researchers, legislators and reporters have gathered in Washington DC to share ideas about space weather. This year, forum organizers plan to sharpen the focus on critical infrastructure protection. The ultimate goal is to improve the nation’s ability to prepare, mitigate, and respond to potentially devastating space weather events.
“I believe we’re on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather.” Fisher concludes. “We take this very seriously indeed.”
ADDENDUM FROM NASA:
Learn more about NASA’s commitment to exploring the local cosmic environment:
Heliophysics Science and the Moon
PDF, 2.2 MB
We live in the extended atmosphere of an active star. While sunlight enables and sustains life, the Sun’s variability produces streams of high energy particles and radiation that can harm life or alter its evolution.
Under the protective shield of a magnetic field and atmosphere, the Earth is an island in the Universe where life has developed and flourished. The origins and fate of life on Earth are intimately connected to the way the Earth responds to the Sun’s variations.
Understanding the Sun, Heliosphere, and Planetary Environments as a single connected system is the goal of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program. In addition to solar processes, our domain of study includes the interaction of solar plasma and radiation with Earth, the other planets, and the Galaxy. By analyzing the connections between the Sun, solar wind, planetary space environments, and our place in the Galaxy, we are uncovering the fundamental physical processes that occur throughout the Universe. Understanding the connections between the Sun and its planets will allow us to predict the impacts of solar variability on humans, technological systems, and even the presence of life itself.
We have already discovered ways to peer into the internal workings of the Sun and understand how the Earth’s magnetosphere responds to solar activity. Our challenge now is to explore the full system of complex interactions that characterize the relationship of the Sun with the solar system. Understanding these connections is especially critical as we contemplate our destiny in the third millennium. Heliophysics is needed to facilitate the accelerated expansion of human experience beyond the confines of our Earthly home. Recent advances in technology allow us, for the first time, to realistically contemplate voyages beyond the solar system.
There are three primary objectives that define the multi-decadal studies needed:
- To understand the changing flow of energy and matter throughout the Sun, Heliosphere, and Planetary Environments.
- To explore the fundamental physical processes of space plasma systems.
- To define the origins and societal impacts of variability in the Earth-Sun System.
A combination of interrelated elements is used to achieve these objectives. They include complementary missions of various sizes; timely development of enabling and enhancing technologies; and acquisition of knowledge through research, analysis, theory, and modeling.