Standing Watch against Space Weather
Just as there is weather on Earth, there is weather in space. And though we cannot directly see or feel it when we step outside, it has the potential impact our daily lives.
“Space weather” originates on the Sun, can release the energy-equivalent of 100 hurricanes in just minutes, and can produce wind gusts that exceed one million mph. Every 11 years, the Sun undergoes a period of heightened activity called the "solar maximum”—a period that is occurring right now—that can bring especially powerful solar eruptions and hurl energetic particles into space, sometimes toward the Earth. Though the likelihood that these solar storms will thrust particles in our planet’s general direction is very low—when they do, they can damage satellites, harm astronauts in space, make GPS information erratic or undependable, and in some cases even cause electricity blackouts on the Earth.
That’s why the Federal Government works to maintain a range of sophisticated instruments on the ground and in space, which collect data on space weather phenomena spewing particles outward from the Sun. And, that’s why today, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released a new report, Space Weather Observing Systems: Current Capabilities and Requirements for the Next Decade—an assessment of our Nation’s capacity to monitor and forecast potentially harmful space weather aimed at ensuring these critical capabilities continue to be supported and maintained.
The report finds that Federal agencies have deployed an effective mix of space-based and ground-based systems that are needed to support both operational space-weather services and scientific research. The report also highlights the role of space weather models in complementing current space- and ground-based observing systems. Such models can be used by scientists to predict how changes in the Sun, and resulting space weather, may impact technology on Earth and in space.
While there is no space-weather channel on TV (yet!), anyone can access official US Government space weather forecasts and alerts on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Space Weather Prediction Center’s web site. Those interested in learning about the softer and aesthetic side of space weather can check out NASA’s research data and image gallery of auroras—amazing curtains of colored lights that occasionally brighten the night sky when energetic particles are released from the Sun.
The report released today can be read here.
Tamara Dickinson is a Senior Policy Analyst at OSTP.