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Week of 20 September 2002 · Vol. VI, No. 4

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A distance learning first at BU
BU to lead in creating space weather forecasting model

By Brian Fitzgerald

On July 1, 2002, a massive solar eruption -- more than 30 times the diameter of the earth -- blasted away from the sun. Luckily, the “belch,” which was photographed by a satellite and widely reported in the media, wasn’t aimed at our planet. But sometimes this type of activity bombards the space near earth with energetic particles and other radiation, disturbing its magnetosphere and disrupting everything from astronauts’ space walks to the functioning of telecommunications satellites and power grids.


An “eruptive prominence” (lower left corner) on the sun showed up in a picture taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite on July 1, 2002. It wasn’t headed for earth, but when similar eruptions are aimed toward our planet, they can create space weather that causes a significant amount of aurora and other geomagnetic activity. Photo courtesy of NASA/ESA


As we grow more reliant on technology in space -- and more susceptible to disruptions from space weather -- the National Science Foundation (NSF) has made forecasting these solar storms a priority. It recently named BU to lead the new Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling (CISM), a $20 million, multi-institutional NSF Science and Technology Center. The NSF established the Science and Technology Center program in 1987 to fund important fundamental research efforts that also create educational opportunities, encourage technology transfer, and provide innovative approaches to interdisciplinary research challenges. CISM’s goal is to create a physics- based computer model capable of providing advance warning of potentially harmful space weather events.

“Within this goal,” says W. Jeffrey Hughes, a CAS astronomy professor and CISM director, “we will not only do new science, but we will also build a robust and operationally useful forecasting tool for both civilian and military space weather forecasters, and create novel education programs that will give students at all levels a better understanding of the geospace environment.”

CISM, which is beginning operations at BU this fall, consists of research groups from eight other universities and several government and nonprofit research organizations and commercial firms. Scientists from the consortium, who gathered at BU September 16 to 18 for an organizational meeting, want the computer model to include all the elements that make up space weather. “Current predictions are based on techniques analogous to those used by meteorologists 50 years ago,” says Charles Goodrich, deputy director of CISM and director of the University of Maryland’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory. “We are confident that with the knowledge base and the advanced computer technology now available we can create the first integrated space weather model within the next 10 years.”

As a first step, CISM will create a single comprehensive model by coupling existing submodels, several of which have been developed by members of the consortium. This early effort will be refined over time as it is tested against empirical observations from many sources, both ground-based, such as CISM-member Stanford’s Wilcox Solar Observatory, and space-based, such as NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer and HESSI (high energy solar spectroscopic imager) satellites. The model will evolve and grow as new knowledge and understanding of the underlying physics are developed.

Space weather can be beautiful: it is charged particles from the sun that cause atoms and molecules of the earth’s upper atmosphere to give off the light that forms the aurora. But it can also be devastating. For example, in 1989 a magnetic storm caused massive power outages in Quebec and much of the northeastern United States. In 1998 a solar storm made the Galaxy 4 satellite fail, disabling 80 percent of the pager systems in the United States. And during the Gulf War, severe ionospheric perturbations significantly disrupted communications and navigation by global positioning systems (GPS). The destructive effect of solar activity has even been cited in the premature ending of the Skylab mission in 1970.

For years, space weather forecasters have issued warnings of large magnetic storms whenever they detected a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun. CMEs consist of giant clouds of energetic electrons and strong magnetic fields, traveling from the sun at up to two million miles an hour. But scientists have been unable to tell with any certainty whether a CME would affect earth when it arrived four days later, or whether it would bypass the planet. CISM aims to help forecasters improve the accuracy of space weather predictions by building a physics-based numerical simulation model that describes in detail the space environment between the sun and the earth.

Every 11 years, in a predictable cycle, the sun becomes more active. At high activity, during the so-called solar maximum, there are more CMEs, and a greater chance of solar storms affecting earth. It was during the last peak in the solar cycle, in 1989, that Quebec was plunged into darkness. We’re nearing the end of such a cycle right now, but intense solar activity can also flare up unexpectedly during a solar minimum. Such a storm could put astronauts aboard the International Space Station at risk of receiving potentially lethal dosages of radiation, especially those on a space walk.

With the establishment of space weather models, however, scientists will be better able to tell when power companies should isolate vulnerable parts of their grid system, when GPS users should switch to alternate navigation systems, when satellites should be shut down, and when astronauts should relocate to safer quarters.

“We’re very pleased to be partnering with the National Science Foundation because of its strong commitment to producing practical outcomes that will be of value to the nation in a number of ways, and also because of its strong emphasis on education and knowledge-transfer,” says BU Provost Dennis Berkey. “We believe that many students and other citizens will learn much about space weather and the enterprise of science itself as a result of this project.”

CISM consists of scientists from BU, Alabama A&M, Dartmouth College, Rice University, Stanford University, UC-Berkeley, the University of Colorado–Boulder, the University of Maryland, the University of Texas at El Paso, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Space Environment Center, and industry partners interested in space weather research. Participating from the CAS astronomy department are Nancy Crooker and George Siscoe, both research professors, and Professor Harlan Spence, the department chairman. Other BU researchers include Peter Garik, an SED associate professor, Roscoe Giles, an ENG electrical and computing engineering professor, and Claudio Rebbi, a CAS physics professor and director of the Center for Computational Science.

CISM is one of six new Science and Technology Centers the NSF announced it will begin funding this year. The $20 million grant, which spans the next five years, is renewable for another five years.


20 September 2002
Boston University
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