Cloudy With a Chance of Catastrophe: Predicting the Weather in Space

Image credit: NASA

In 1859, while observing sunspots, a young astronomer named Richard Carrington recorded a geomagnetic storm so powerful, the electrical currents it sent to Earth were enough to keep the newly invented telegraph operating without a battery. Centuries later, though humans have sent robots to Mars and even strong-armed a couple engineers into walking on the moon, the science of space weather, the changing environmental conditions in near-Earth space, has largely managed to elude us. In fact even the term “space weather” is new; it wasn’t used regularly until the 1990s.

Now, an international project led by China is hoping to advance the study of space weather by light-years in order to minimize the dangerous impact a storm in space might have on us fragile Earthlings.

If experts are correct, there's a chance that a serious space weather threat will arrive sooner rather than later – and the risk to humans is greater than you think.

Oddly, the trouble is that we’ve become too advanced. Because humans today are so dependent upon modern electrical technology, a space storm the size of the one Carrington recorded in 1859 could cause catastrophic problems if it occurred tomorrow. According to a 2008 National Academy of Sciences Report, from long-term electrical blackouts to damage to communication satellites and GPS systems (not to mention billions in financial losses), the results could be devastating worldwide.

Luckily, scientists are hopeful the KuaFu project will prevent (or at least minimize the impact of) this kind of disaster.

Our Eyes on the Sun, The Sun in Our Eyes

Named for Kua Fu, a sun-chasing giant from a Chinese folktale whose pursuit to tame the brightest star in our solar system ended after he died of thirst, the KuaFu project will create a space weather forecasting system 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth's surface. The goal is similar to the one from the legend: to observe changes in solar-terrestrial storms, investigate flows of energy and solar material, and improve the forecasting of space weather.

Not necessarily to tame the sun, but, at least, to understand it.

Proposed in 2003 by scientist Chuanyi Tu from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the project will place three separate satellites at strategic points in our solar system to observe the inner workings of space weather. China's National Space Administration along with the European and Canadian Space Agencies will work together to man them.

“Being aware of the impending blindness to space weather and its effects, we consider a mission like KuaFu absolutely mandatory,” said Dr. Rainer Schwenn, one of the developers of KuaFu. “If 'space weather' keeps being considered an important science goal, then KuaFu is a real key project.”

The satellites will offer an unprecedented ability to glean information about the often tumultuous relationship between the sun and Earth, by allowing scientists to observe both the star and its effects on the planet simultaneously. To now, this process has been viewable only via computer simulation.

“You have to look at the two systems simultaneously [to most accurately forecast space weather]” said Dr. William Liu, a senior scientist at the Canadian Space Agency who took over as project leader when Chuanyi Tu retired two years ago. “It's a real observation; it's what's actually happening.”

Space Storm Showdown: What Do We Do?

So, if the power-grid frying, billion dollar damage-wreaking storm is inevitable, how much will forecasting it actually help?

Lots.

According to Liu, predicting space weather activity can give the operators who maneuver satellites in space the information they need to protect them and us from harm.

For example: If companies know a storm is approaching, it gives them a chance to tweak their loads before their systems descend into chaos and shut off power for, say, the entire East Coast of the United States.

“That's how you prevent catastrophe,” Liu explained. “You reduce the load on the parts that are more sensitive.”

While the project was originally scheduled to be completed this year, Liu’s current estimates put its debut at 2016. Despite the delays, he remains optimistic it will come to fruition, pointing out that international collaborations like this one often stir up scientific and financial challenges that delay the launch process.

Whether the KuaFu project will be able to predict space weather accurately all of the time is up for debate. Liu, however, is confident that, at the very least, it's a step toward that direction .

“With this launch and operation, we'll make our predictions better. Whether it will be 100 percent, that will be too much to ask, but it will definitely improve our knowledge.”

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College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy
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One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

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North America: East or West Coast?
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