A new forecasting tool capable of predicting whether a solar storm will hit the Earth could help protect satellites, aircraft and power grids.
The tool, developed by Neel Savani, a Visiting Research at Imperial College London, analyses the magnetic fields of forming coronal mass ejections - the massive bursts of gas arising from the solar corona - and gauges their direction.
“As we become more entwined with technology, disruption from large space weather events affects our daily lives more and more,” said Savani, who is also a space scientist at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center. “Breaking through that 24-hour barrier to prediction is crucial for dealing efficiently with any potential problems before they arise.”
Solar storms pose great threats to modern-day Earth-based systems. These storms can cause widespread blackouts, disrupt radio transmissions and damage satellites. GPS technology in particular, critical for many terrestrial applications including all types of transport, is extremely vulnerable.
Currently, satellites can only tell the orientation of a mass ejection’s magnetic field with any certainty when it is relatively close to the Earth, giving just 30-60 minutes’ notice - not enough to protect the systems.
Whether a solar storm hits the Earth depends on where it originated on the Sun, as well as its evolution during the journey through space.
As the solar storm travels through space, forming a croissant-shaped cloud of highly charged particles, its many variously oriented magnetic fields shift and change.
If one of those magnetic fields hits the Earth’s magnetic field at a certain angle, the two will connect, virtually opening a door that allows material to enter and cause a geomagnetic storm.
Previously, predictions had relied on measuring the initial eruption, but these were not efficient in modelling what happened between the birth of the solar storm and the cloud’s arrival to Earth. The new technique takes a closer look at where mass ejections originate from on the Sun and makes use of a range of observatories to track and model the evolution of the cloud.
The new model was tested on eight coronal mass ejections in the recent past with promising results.
Further tests will be conducted by Nasa. If the accuracy of the tool is verified, the model could soon be applied by the world’s leading weather forecasters including the UK’s Met Office and the US NOAA.