Last week, a massive solar flare on the sun produced one of the strongest radiation storms Earth has experienced since May 2005.
As a result, airlines were forced to reroute some flights that usually cross over the Polar regions. Many parts of the world, which usually can’t see the aurorae produced over the North and South Poles, were treated to a spectacular light show.
Last week’s events could be a sign of things to come as the sun moves toward its solar maximum, the period in which it experiences its greatest amount of activity. The sun goes through an approximately 11-year cycle that takes it from a period of relative calm to a state of agitation.
The solar maximum is expected to peak sometime next year, in 2013. In 2003, during its last period of intense activity, the sun produced the largest and most powerful solar flare ever observed, up to that point, which was measured by modern methods.
This time, as the sun reaches its period of greatest turmoil, experts at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center will be ready with new tools.
These tools will help them measure solar activity, giving space weather forecasters greatly enhanced forecasting capability.
Right now, forecasters work with only one set of parameters with data that is taken from near real-time information gathered by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), among others.
But NASA officials point out that they have no assurance of receiving continuous real-time data stream from these observatories.
Forecasting by the Space Weather Laboratory could be further hindered by imperfections in the data they do receive. Those imperfections tend to grow over time, all of which can lead to forecasts that may not necessarily agree with the progression of actual conditions.
Utilizing “ensemble forecasting,” a computer technique meteorologists use to predict weather on Earth, NASA’s space weather forecasters will be able to concurrently create up to 100 computerized forecasts instead of analyzing that one set of solar weather conditions as they do now.
These multiple computerized solar weather forecasts, made by calculating a number of possible conditions, allow forecasters to quickly and accurately provide alerts of space weather storms that could, for example, be potentially harmful to astronauts and NASA spacecraft.
Since the new computer systems have already been installed at the Space Weather Lab, NASA hopes its space weather scientists will be able to generate more specialized forecasts.
This state-of-the-art space weather forecasting capability, according to NASA, is expected to be completed within three years.