New System To Forecast Space Weather
A new system has been developed by British scientists that will forecast space weather in an effort to better protect satellites orbiting our planet from damaging solar storms.
Led by researchers at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the SPACECAST project is expected to provide reliable web-based forecasts so that satellite operators will be able to take action to keep their navigational, communication, and scientific satellites from the radiation that solar storms produce.
Researchers from six European countries partnered with two European companies and with colleagues from the US to use satellite data, ground-based measurements of the Earth´s magnetic field, and computer models to make accurate forecasts of space weather.
“For the first time, we can now forecast radiation levels for a whole range of different orbits, from geo-stationary to medium earth orbit where there is a tremendous growth in the number of satellites,” Richard Horne, BAS´s lead researcher of the project, said in a recent press release.
GPS satellites, which orbit closer to Earth, passing through the so-called Van Allen radiation belt — a ring of charged particles trapped within a magnetic field encircling the planet above the equator — are typically at a higher risk than other types of satellites.
“We know that the radiation levels there are much higher than in geostationary orbit, but they’re still subject to big changes and we have a lot less information on those medium earth orbit locations,” Horne told Ethan Bilby of Reuters.
Monitoring GPS satellites has become increasingly more important with the tremendous growth seen in the GPS systems industry. Europe´s Galileo and Russia´s GLONASS are just a few of the increasing number of systems being launched.
And with the Sun´s 11-year activity cycle peaking in the coming year, forecasts of solar storms are all the more important.
While researchers believe with the new models they will be able to make reliably accurate forecasts, satellite operators will only be left with a few hours or so notice to move or power down their satellites, as the NASA satellite that tracks incoming radiation is only out in space about 800,000 miles. It takes radiation roughly 36 hours to travel from the Sun to Earth.
Space weather is important to the UK and US Governments, as millions of dollars have been lost in satellite damage as a result of large magnetic storms in space. A large magnetic storm in 2003 caused more than 47 satellites to malfunction, including the loss of a $640 million scientific satellite.
The largest solar storm ever recorded, the Carrington magnetic storm of 1859, thankfully occurred long before the world became reliant on satellite technology. If such a storm was to occur again it could wreak more than $30 billion dollars in damage to satellites around the world.
During the Sun´s activity cycle, the number of moderate to large magnetic storms varies from 15 to 60 per year. A new sunspot maximum is expected to increase the number of storms between 2013 and 2015. The hourly updated new forecasting system, should help protect the satellites from those storms.
“The Sun is becoming more active again triggering more geomagnetic storms which generally increase space radiation. These changes are an important part of space weather and are a serious natural hazard,” said Horne.
“In putting this system together we have adapted our research models for operational needs. We can forecast one to three hours ahead; longer than that and changes can happen so quickly that we lose reliability,” he added.
Commercial satellites operators are cautious about just how vulnerable their satellites are to solar storms, but Barron Beneski, spokesman for satellite manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corporation, said such storms were a well-known concern.
“Space weather of course is a contributing factor to long-term satellite performance,” Beneski told Reuters. “If there is a new tool that would probably be welcome.”
Space weather has been blamed by Orbital Sciences for a 2010 malfunction of one of its satellites, which remained unresponsive for months.
One of the key features of space weather forecasting is that radiation levels are computed from the physics of wave-particle interactions. Observations at BAS´s Halley Research Station, Antarctica, have long shown that special types of very low frequency (VLF) electromagnetic waves can increase or decrease space radiation levels. These variations are now incorporated into the forecasting models and over the next few years SPACECAST will be working on the physics so that forecasts can be improved.
The space weather forecasts can be viewed online. The forecasts also provide a risk index for satellite operators.
While most satellites will continue to operate during space storms, the advance warning can give operators a chance to reduce risk of disruption by switching off non-essential systems, rerouting signals, and by rescheduling orbital maneuvers and software updates.
Image Caption: A mass of swirling plasma rose up above the Sun, twisted and turned for almost a day, then broke away in to space (Nov. 29-30, 2011). The close up in extreme ultraviolet light from SDO shows material (at 90,000 degrees F.) near an active region being buffeted and pulled by magnetic forces. Two other active regions (lighter areas nearer the center and also lower left) show some good dynamic activity as well. Credit: NASA
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