NSF-backed software a shot-in-the-arm for space storm watchers

Satellites, astronauts, high-altitude aircraft and electric power grids could soon be safer with software being developed by scientists that will increase the number of near space-earth measurements satellites can make by 100-fold.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has been awarded a National Science Foundation 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.

During these geomagnetic storms, AMPERE will observe the electric currents that can exceed 10 million amperes--one million times what household wiring can handle--and deliver up to a terra-watt of power to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, the ionosphere and thermosphere. A typical power plant is designed to deliver one thousandth that amount, about one gigawatt of power, the group said.

This unbridled energy can cause all manner of disturbances from  altering the orbits of satellites to disrupting radio communications and corrupting GPS navigation systems as well as damaging electrical systems. The currents AMPERE will measure are also closely linked to enhanced radiation levels in space, posing risks to astronauts and spacecraft, researchers said.

AMPERE will also enable advances that could transform scientific understanding of Earth's space environment, and improve space weather forecasting, according to researchers.

With AMPERE APL scientists have developed techniques to interpret the satellites' magnetic field readings, and then extract the signatures of electrical currents, according to an article in Johns Hopkins magazine.  To create maps, they also use radar signals bounced off the polar regions to measure variations in the electric field (that radar network is known as SuperDARN).

Solar Particles

In the past scientists relied mostly on ground-based magnetometers that monitor storms in the polar regions partly by tracking the aurora the currents create. Yet those detectors haven't been able to keep up with the storm as it moves across the globe. The new approach also builds on a number of weather satellites and devices, including ACE, the Advanced Composition Explorer--an APL-developed spacecraft orbiting one million miles from Earth in the gravitation pivot point between Earth and the sun. That craft, whose detectors measure solar wind, including speed and density, give a one-hour advance warning of the electromagnetic field clouds, the article states.

Layer 8 in a box

Check out these other hot stories:

FTC hammers invention, patent promoters with $10M settlement

IBM: We could make 157 Airbus airliners out of our recycled products

NASA says star burns with light of 3.2 million suns

Solar race cars chase the sun

Efforts to Reduce Flight Delay Hell Largely Fail, GAO says

NASA Doles Out $12M to Study Advanced Aircraft Impact on Air Traffic Control

Do Not Call fines slashed from $11M to $95,000 for Dish Network tele-violators

The Top 20 most recession-proof jobs

Do Not Call Registry gets glowing reviews

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

IT Salary Survey: The results are in