A new system for observing space weather is bringing scientists closer to making accurate forecasts for conditions beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Boeing have teamed up to use Iridium satellites to monitor Earth’s space environment. A $4 million National Science Foundation grant is funding the program, which uses the existing constellation of 66 Iridium communication satellites to collect and deliver data to scientists. The system is called AMPERE, short for active magnetosphere and planetary electrodynamics response experiment.
Space weather generally refers to solar storms that could damage power grids and telecommunication satellites and even threaten aircraft flying in high altitudes. Solar storms are caused by coronal mass ejections, one of which occurred in August when the sun shot 10 billion tons of superheated gas towards Earth at a million miles per hour. The recent event caused no problems and gave onlookers in several countries, including Canada and the northern United States, a spectacular aurora. A 1989 solar storm wasn’t as beautiful, causing a total blackout in Quebec that lasted more than nine hours and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
AMPERE captured data from the August incident and will track stronger, potentially destructive storms in the next few years. The sun is headed toward a period of intense activity after a long quiet cycle, said Brian Anderson, principal investigator at Johns Hopkins and lead scientist on the project. By 2013, the solar wind should have picked up.
AMPERE eventually will allow scientists to make predictions about space weather the way a meteorologist does for Earth, Anderson said. For now, there remain many unknowns. Space weather forecasts should be taken with a grain of salt, the scientist said.