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Researchers get $2 million to get the drop on space weather

Bad space weather can mess up your GPS, cell phone and electricity

By Layer 8 on Tue, 08/25/09 - 4:59pm.

space weather radarLooking to help better understand how space weather affects a variety of everyday consumer technologies including global positioning systems (GPS), satellites for television reception, and cellular phones, researchers at Virginia Tech's Space@VT research group got a $2 million grant to build a chain of space weather instrument stations in Antarctica.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) grant will help the group built new radar units that will work with the current Super Dual Auroral Radar Network -- an international collaboration with support provided by the funding agencies of more than a dozen countries, researchers stated. The radars combine to give extensive views of the upper atmosphere in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The new radars will become part of a continuous chain of coverage that extends from Europe to eastern Asia, researchers stated. 

The need for such a system is manifold. Satellites experience the disruptive effects of energetic charged particles and electrical charging across the satellite structure during various weather conditions. Astronauts are vulnerable to energetic radiation that may occur at space station altitudes. Navigation signals from global positioning satellites are affected by irregularities in the ionosphere that develop under some conditions, and massive disruption in electric power distribution systems can be triggered by geomagnetic storms, stated Robert Clauer, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech.

The northern hemisphere is already well-instrumented as a number of stations currently exist in the Arctic, including an array in Greenland. But due primarily to the "extreme Antarctic climate and lack of manned facilities with the necessary infrastructure to support facilities, the southern polar region is not," Clauer said. 

A NASA-funded study earlier this year showed clear economic data that quantifies the risk extreme weather conditions in space have on the Earth.

The study, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences noted that besides emitting a continuous stream of plasma called the solar wind, the sun periodically releases billions of tons of matter called coronal mass ejections. These immense clouds of material, when directed toward Earth, can cause large magnetic storms in the magnetosphere and upper atmosphere, NASA said. Such space weather can impact the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems, NASA said.

One of the driving reasons for the study is that the sun is currently near the minimum of its 11-year activity cycle but solar storms will increase in frequency and intensity toward the next solar maximum, expected to occur around 2012.

For example, space weather can produce solar storm electromagnetic fields that induce extreme currents in wires, disrupting power lines, causing wide-spread blackouts and affecting communication cables that support the Internet.  It can also create solar energetic particles and the dislocation of the Earth's radiation belts, which can damage satellites used for commercial communications, global positioning and weather forecasting.

Meanwhile, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) was last year awarded an NSF grant to perform an experiment called the Active Magnetosphere and Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment (AMPERE) that will employ the Iridium constellation of 66 communications satellites and new software to measure the electric currents that link Earth's atmosphere and space. By measuring this component of the space weather system, AMPERE will allow 24/7 tracking of Earth's response to supersonic blasts of plasma ejected from the sun, the group said.

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