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Space Weather and Solar Storms to be Topics at Upcoming Forum in Nation’s Capital

06/08/2010

The National Space Weather Program Council will be conducting a forum in Washington, DC today. The Space Weather Enterprise Forum, to be held at the National Press Club, will discuss how solar storms affect today’s technological society. This is the fourth year in a row that policymakers, researchers, legislators and reporters have gathered in Washington DC to share ideas about space weather. This year, forum organizers plan to sharpen the focus on critical infrastructure protection, with the ultimate goal to improve the nation’s ability to prepare, mitigate and respond to potentially devastating space weather events in order to serve a broad and growing user community.

According to Richard Fisher, the Sun is “waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss. I believe we’re on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather. We take this very seriously indeed.” Fisher is the head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) framed the problem two years ago in a landmark report entitled Severe Space Weather Events -- Societal and Economic Impacts. It noted how people of the 21st century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. NAS warned that a century-class solar storm could cause 20 times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

Conference organizers say that much of the damage can be mitigated if managers know a storm is coming: “Putting satellites in ‘safe mode’ and disconnecting transformers can protect these assets from damaging electrical surges. Preventative action, however, requires accurate forecasting -- a job that has been assigned to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).”

“Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we’re making rapid progress, said Director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center Thomas Bogdan. He sees the collaboration between NASA and NOAA as key: “NASA’s fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft provides us with up-to-the-minute information about what’s happening on the Sun. They are an important complement to our own GOES and POES satellites, which focus more on the near-Earth environment.”

Among dozens of NASA spacecraft, Bogdan noted three of special significance: STEREO, SDO and ACE.

  • STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) is a pair of spacecraft stationed on opposite sides of the sun with a combined view of 90 percent of the stellar surface. In the past, active sunspots could hide out on the Sun’s far side, invisible from Earth, and then suddenly emerge over the limb spitting flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). STEREO makes such surprise attacks impossible.
  • SDO (the Solar Dynamics Observatory) is the newest addition to NASA’s fleet. Just launched in February, it is able to photograph solar active regions with unprecedented spectral, temporal and spatial resolution. Researchers can now study eruptions in exquisite detail, raising hopes that they will learn how flares work and how to predict them. SDO also monitors the Sun’s extreme UV output that controls the response of Earth’s atmosphere to solar variability.
  • The Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) is a solar wind monitor. It sits upstream between the Sun and Earth, detecting solar wind gusts, billion-ton CMEs and radiation storms as much as 30 minutes before they hit our planet. “ACE is our best early warning system,” Bogdan explained. “It allows us to notify utility and satellite operators when a storm is about to hit.”

Fisher said that NASA spacecraft were not originally intended for operational forecasting, “but it turns out that our data have practical economic and civil uses. This is a good example of space science supporting modern society.”

 



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