Predicting Space Storms

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada have successfully predicted the epicenter of impact of an earthbound space storm. Generated when electrically-charged solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, these storms can dump up to 50 gigawatts of power – the same amount of power generated by the 10 largest power plants on the planet – into the atmosphere.
 An artist's rendering of a space storm hitting Earth (Credit: Andy Kale/University of Alberta)
An artist’s rendering of a
space storm hitting Earth
(Credit: Andy Kale/University of Alberta)

Physicists Jonathan Rae and Ian Mann used data from the five satellites of NASA’s Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions During Substorms mission (THEMIS; not to be confused with the Thermal Emission Imaging System on NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft which is also called THEMIS) as well as data collected by ground-based observatories spread around Canada to look for the eye of the storm. Rae and Mann developed a process they call space seismology to find the epicenter from detected magnetic disturbances, or tremors that occur when the storms hit the atmosphere. Effects on the ground are felt a few minutes after the atmospheric events, providing a small window of advanced notice.

While not many details on space seismology were revealed, the technique has already successfully pinpointed the epicenter of effects from a recent storm by observing ripples in the Earth’s magnetic field acting much like magnetic blast waves traveling at speeds of 60,000 miles per hour propagating away from Sanikulaq, Nunavut, Canada. According to the researchers, THEMIS data can also be used to identify the eye of a space storm, usually located just above the low Earth orbits of most communications satellites.

Effects of such storms on the ground include benevolent events like the appearance of the aurora borealis as well as less benign effects such as damage to electrical grids and radio signal interruptions. The storms are even more dangerous in space when they aren’t damped by the atmosphere – electrical charges from such storms can damage spacecraft and satellites in their path.

Because of such destructive potential, the team is currently trying to refine the technique to provide more advance warning of space storms, much like meteorologist on Earth predict and warn of impending hurricanes and tornados. The scientists also hope to learn more about when and how space storms originate to aid in forecasting as well as improve scientific knowledge.

TFOT has previously reported on a magnetic spaceshield that might protect spacecraft from space storms as well as other dangers caused by solar winds. Additionally, TFOT has covered other research and discoveries that rely on THEMIS data including the discovery of a breach in the Earth’s magnetic field and the mechanism of particle transfer between the Earth’s magnetic field and the Sun’s magnetic field.

Read more about predicting space storms and their epicenter of impact in this NASA news release.