NASA reports breakthrough in space weather monitoring

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Thanks to data collected from NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) and advances in modeling, scientists can for the first time watch a coronal mass ejection from its formation on the sun to its impact with the Earth's magnetosphere.

The most powerful CMEs, enormous magnetized clouds of electrified gas emitted from the sun, that hit the Earth's protective magnetic field can disrupt satellites, radio signals and even the electric grid.

Now, almost five years since the launch of satellites STEREO A and STEREO B, scientists have a clear view of space weather as CMEs transit from the sun to the Earth--marking a major milestone toward better forecasting of space weather events that could impact communications and electricity on Earth.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can now forecast space weather to an eight-hour window, said Alysha Reinard, research scientist at NOAA during a NASA Helioscience webcast Aug. 18. Until very recently, scientists could only predict CMEs to a 12- to 24-hour window. "I think with the greater detail provided by STEREO we can likely get closer than that," she added.

Whether a CME will actually cause problems with the earth is largely dependent on the magnetic filed, said Reinard. CME fields are directional, a northward field or southward field could pull apart the Earth's magnetic filed in different ways.

CMEs are also emitted at varying velocities. They evolve and distort as they move through space's turbulent solar winds and other objects' magnetic fields, said Madhulika Guhathakurta, STEREO program scientist at NASA. These variables have made timing, density and strength calculations difficult.

"A tremendous amount of extraordinarily careful work was needed just to develop the algorithms...to calibrate the measuring devices, and be able to analyze the data," explained Craig DeForest, a staff scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

NASA is beginning to build a complete predictive system for space weather, and while it has many of the necessary tools and techniques to make these observations, Guhathakurta notes that many of them are dependent on satellites. Unfortunately, satellites don't last forever, she said.

In 2018 NASA is planning a mission to the outer atmosphere of the sun. Guhathakurta said the space weather data now being collected is critical for the modeling leading up that mission.

For more:
- see this video about CME monitoring

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