Real-Time Space Weather Forecasting Now Possible, Innovation Front Sweeping in From the Far North

Northern Lights

Iridium Communications, the satellite phone company, has some clever ideas for small "piggyback" payloads aboard its next-gen NEXT communications spacecraft, but one big experiment using its existing array of 66 orbiting platforms has just been announced: It's to measure space weather in real time.

The effort is a partnership between Iridium, Johns Hopkins University and Boeing, and it's dubbed the Active Magnetosphere and Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment--AMPERE for short. The equipment is already aboard some of Iridium's satellite communications spacecraft, drawing power from the vehicle's main systems, and using Iridium's ground systems to send data and commands to and from the payload. AMPERE is designed to provide real-time magnetic field measurements, taken from orbit, as part of a new network to forecast the Earth's upcoming space weather. Eventually the science from these experiments may let forecasters work out how the Earth's space weather effects will progress, much like is currently attempted for the more normal climatic weather.

Johns Hopkins and Boeing have worked out a way to increase the sampling rate, and the data communications systems, so that magnetic field data coming down from the space-borne sensors is now up to 100 times faster. This means samples of the global magnetic field are available in two- to 20-second intervals, and are available for analysis immediately (versus earlier efforts which had samples every three minutes, and data availability the next day). It is, so Iridium notes in its press release, the "first step" in developing a "24 hour tracking of Earth's response" to dramatic fluctuations in the solar wind.

Why should you care about this? The sun breathes out a constant stream of particles at incredible speed--the solar wind--and these megatons of material fly out into space, where they hit the planets, including the Earth. Our planet's magnetic field neatly deflects the majority of the material, but some of it "leaks" down through the field to the planet's poles, and causes the Northern and Southern Lights. But when a severe solar eruption happens--like last week's coronal mass ejection event that caused the Aurora Borealis to be visible over some of Europe--the fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field can disrupt satellites and even ground-based communications. As more and more satellites are sent into space, and more and more data is streamed through the air on the ground, and up and down to satellites in orbit, the disruptions caused by space weather are going to get more important. And with the sun about to enter a particularly active phase in its own atmospheric behavior, projects like AMPERE couldn't be more timely.

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