As a result of a breakthrough in how scientists use space weather measurements, satellites launched into space could transmit more accurate warnings of hazardous solar storms.
Solar wind is a harmful torrent of charged particles emitted by the sun. Experts from the University of Reading have discovered that using satellite data that is less reliable but returned to Earth quickly can increase the accuracy of solar wind forecasts by nearly 50 percent.
Today’s (Thursday, 18 May) publication of their findings in Space Weather could pave the way for agencies like the Met Office to better prepare for the effects of severe space weather, which can cause outages and damage human health.
Harriet Turner, the lead researcher from the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, stated, “We know a lot about how to prepare for storms that form on Earth, but we need to enhance our forecasts of the hazardous weather we receive from space.
Space weather poses a hazard to our technologically reliant way of life because it can disrupt power infrastructure, damage satellites like GPS, and even make astronauts ill.
“Our research has demonstrated the effectiveness of using swift satellite measurements to forecast space weather. By dispatching spacecraft far from Earth, we can use this new technique to obtain more accurate predictions of solar storms and ensure that we are prepared for what is to come.”
Met Office Space Weather Manager Simon Machin remarked, “This is an excellent illustration of the value that can result from our collaboration with academia. Improved space weather forecasting will ultimately enhance our nation’s capacity to prepare for and respond to space weather events by integrating scientific research into operational domains.
Old tactics and new ones
To forecast space weather, scientists must estimate the Earth’s solar wind conditions. To accomplish this, they integrate computer simulations and observations from space to predict the space weather. This process is called data assimilation.
As they are processed and ‘cleaned’ on the ground, the highest-quality observations do not become available until many days after they are collected, thereby extending the time required to generate accurate forecasts.
The research team experimented with near-real-time (NRT) data in an attempt to obtain forecasts more quickly. No refining or cleansing is performed on NRT data, meaning it is less accurate but can be made available within a couple of hours.
The research team discovered that forecasts generated using NRT data continue to produce accurate predictions and allow for increased warning time. This could allow authorities in the United States and Europe to better prepare for power outages, which could cost up to $2.1 trillion over a century.
To the heavens!
According to the study’s authors, incorporating this new technique into future space missions will improve forecasts.
Midway through the 2020s, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch the ‘Vigil’ mission, a first-of-its-kind mission that will monitor potentially hazardous solar activity using a number of instruments developed in the United Kingdom.
By deploying the spacecraft 60 degrees behind the Earth’s longitude, the Met Office will be able to enhance space weather forecasts by assimilating NRT solar wind data.
It is anticipated that the unique location of Vigil will permit scientists to observe the solar wind that will eventually reach Earth, thereby maximizing forecast accuracy and warning time.