Space Weather Forecasting Advances Prepare for Solar Maximum Events

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Large aurora created by a CME in 1989 (Credits: NASA).

A new sunspot identification method has drastically improved scientists’ ability to issue warnings for upcoming solar storms, much like meteorologists predicting thunderstorms and hurricanes. According to NASA and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers, a period of intense solar activity  is approaching, and scientists are preparing to protect Earth assets from the effects of the anticipated solar storms.

“We are living in a really, really exciting time right now,” said Antti Pulkkinen, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center physicist, at the American Geophysical Union meeting this month. “We are really witnessing the emergence of numerical space weather forecasting.”

Even though this enhanced forecasting has a long way to go before being completely reliable regarding space weather, it can already provide enough advanced warning for necessary electrical fluctuation adjustments  to be made in power grids and satellite and airline communication systems. NASA, NOAA  and the US Department of Defense (DoD) can occasionally give up to three-days’ warning before a storm.

The importance of more accurate space weather forecasting is growing due to the increasing use of technology that can be affected by solar storms, such as airline communication systems and GPS use in agriculture and deep-sea drilling. In 2006, GPS across the United States became inoperative for more than ten minutes, without any warning. At the moment, real-time warnings of solar storms come mainly from NASA’s SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) and SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory) satellites, and the soon to be replaced Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), which has surpassed its originally planned lifetime by ten years.

The timing of these advances couldn’t be better, given the Sun’s “awakening” after its most peaceful activity level in the last 200 years. The cyclical peak of magnetic solar storms and other similar phenomena occurs during the period of the so-called “solar maximum,” next anticipated in 2013. Even a modest peak period can trigger some of the fiercest solar storms ever recorded. The main effect of these storms on Earth is the disruption of its magnetic field due to coronal mass ejections, huge sheets of solar wind emitted by the Sun. These disturbances are the reason North and South Pole auroras are created in the sky, an innocuous side effect that has fascinated humans for centuries

The video below shows SOHO images of coronal mass ejections (Credits: NASA):
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inCkOHzwCrs]

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