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Always Sunny inSpace

By John Rennie

In February 1942, British and German militaries each briefly feared that the other had invented a weapon that could win the war. The anti-aircraft radars that both sides had trained over the English Channel were suddenly overwhelmed with noise from a mysterious signal. “People didn’t know what was happening,” says Professor of Astronomy Jeffrey Hughes. “Each thought the other had come up with some wonderful jamming mechanism.” Studies tied the interference to the sun, and scientists realized that solar flares were producing powerful bursts of radio waves (a discovery that did not become public knowledge until after the war).

The incident was a pointed example of the influence of space weather on human affairs—an influence that has only grown in the decades since. Space weather concerns the interplay of charged particles, radiation, and magnetic fields emanating from the sun into interplanetary space. And when we need to understand what the impact of these phenomena might be on Earth, we increasingly turn to the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling (CISM) that Hughes helped found.

Born and raised on the Welsh coast, Hughes followed his innate bent for science to Imperial College at the University of London, where he studied the physics of Earth’s magnetic fields, or magnetosphere, in the early 1970s. He was drawn into space weather studies only gradually—but then, the discipline itself was still taking shape.

Indeed, the term “space weather” only dates back to the early 1990s. The discipline emerged slowly during the preceding decades through the convergence of the relevant science, the computational tools, and the need to protect satellites and other equipment vulnerable to solar disruption. Hughes says that when he started out, physics was just starting to understand the scientific fundamentals of the phenomena, and that the first global computational models did not arrive until the 1980s.

At an American Geophysical Union meeting in 1997, when Hughes was just a few months into his tenure as chair of BU’s Department of Astronomy, he was approached by some of his colleagues who wanted to start a center under the auspices of the National Science Foundation that could run comprehensive, global simulations of the space weather around Earth. BU seemed like a good home for the center, according to Hughes, partly because it had taken an early lead in making state-of-the-art computing facilities readily available to faculty and because it had a strong history of supporting research in space physics. After several years of advocating for it, Hughes convinced the NSF to fund CISM at BU in 2002. He has served as the center’s director for the past decade.

CISM draws from various subdisciplines in space physics to create an integrated view of space weather. Much of physics in the twentieth century, Hughes says, involved taking things apart and seeing what the fundamental parts did. He thinks that twenty-first century science will largely be about doing the opposite: understanding complex systems made from the interactions of simpler components. For example, taking all the relatively simple solar and space physics phenomena and putting them together into the complex system that represents space weather.

The idea of space weather is becoming better known to the public now that news reports sometimes sound an alert about upcoming solar storms and their potential to disrupt communications. That attention can be a mixed bag to Hughes, however, because the concerns raised are often overblown. “I have a sense of the media wanting to sensationalize everything,” he sighs.

Looking to the future of space weather studies, Hughes says that one of the greatest challenges is that science does not yet know what the inherent unpredictability of space weather systems might be. No one yet understands how much small differences in conditions near the sun or in the solar wind emanating from it might alter the conditions around Earth—nor whether such variations would even matter significantly. He likens the problem to ordinary meteorology: forecasters can offer predictions about the timing and severity of coming storms, but no one can forecast precisely when and where individual lightning strikes will occur.

Hughes also hopes that space weather studies can be a tool to reduce the counterproductive partitioning of scientific knowledge into isolated fields. For example, he says that much of what he and his colleagues have learned could be useful to astrophysicists seeking to understand the conditions around stars that are frustratingly far away. “They can’t get to the basic physics in the way we can,” he says.

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