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

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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.”

May 14, 2012 - 8:16am
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