NASA scientists for the first time can track the effects of a solar storm on Earth, offering new advancements in our ability to predict space weather and how it will impact our satellites, emergency systems, power grid, air traffic control equipment and more.
New observations from NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO, spacecraft have allowed researchers to observe the sun throwing off immense clouds of material, see how the material interacts with solar wind and monitor the result as it hurtles toward Earth's magnetosphere.
The result: a first-ever view, end-to-end and in three dimensions, of the impact of a solar storm on Earth.
"With stereoscopic telescopes, we are actually witnessing the solar wind and solar storm blowing all the way from sun to Earth," said Madhulika Guhathakurta, STEREO program scientist, during a press conference at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
STEREO is part of NASA's Solar Terrestrial Probes Program in the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Its mission is to understand the fundamental physical processes of the space environment from the sun to Earth and other planets.
For 40 years or more, scientists have understood that the sun throws vast clouds of material toward Earth that impact our weather. It's called a coronal mass ejection, or CME, and it's a 50 million-mile-high wall of plasma that eventually envelops the Earth, said Craig DeForest, staff scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.
In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers for the first time imaged the inner heliosphere, the section of that "bubble" of material closest to the sun. But the resolution was poor and that work still omitted more distant regions of the bubble, said David Webb, a research physicist at the Institute for Scientific Research at Boston College.
The problem: a lot of activity occurs in that space. Some storms are deflected by solar winds. Some slow down because of them. Some speed up. The structure of some storms can even be distorted. Without a way to watch the chain of events unfold, scientists were forced to wait until they impacted Earth and wreaked havoc -- or not.
"We've been unable to connect the very detailed structures affecting Earth all the way back to the solar structures [that started them]," DeForest said.
Now we can. DeForest said that once the data was collected from the STEREO spacecraft, the last step of the physics research was "an extraordinary difficult extraction problem" in which new algorithms were developed to separate in researchers' images the expanding cloud from the starfield it's superimposed upon.
"By the time the cloud reaches Venus, it's 10 billion times fainter than the surface of the Moon," DeForest said. "It's a tremendous achievement to separate the two signals."
The new imaging technology has allowed forecasters to better predict how a CME impacts satellites and other communications technology here, said Alysha Reinard, a research scientist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, Boulder.
"It's like trying to understand how a hurricane is moving across the ocean by just having a couple buoys measuring wind speed," she said. "Now we can actually see the CME moving across the sky."
That's important because the magnetic interference that a CME brings can cause a geomagnetic storm that could impact our electronics, from widespread electricity blackouts, communication systems interruptions and even wonky GPS coordinates.
"When [a CME arrives] is important, but whether it will actually cause problems is also important," Reinard explained. "It has to do with magnetic fields. Earth's magnetosphere has a direction; CMEs do too. If CME has northward field, it's more likely to bounce off the magnetosphere. If it's a CME with southward field, as the CME gets to Earth it's actually pulling apart that field."
Until now, scientists have been able to measure the arrival of a CME within 12 to 24 hours. The STEREO spacecraft have closed that window to eight hours, and "we can do better than that" thanks to the new data, Reinard said.
"This has the potential to be pretty groundbreaking," she said.
Combine that with work by Stanford University researchers to investigate the interior of the sun to try and predict the emergence of sunspots, and you've got both ends of the same connected systems, DeForest said.
"It really is the beginning of space forecasting," he said. "For the first time, you're seeing a complete predictive system emerging from the science."