Space Weather Opportunity During the Eclipse

There is an excellent article at summarizing how the upcoming solar eclipse is huge opportunity for space weather researchers.  During this time, the Moon will eclipse the Sun, and the solar corona will be observable.  The corona is the Sun’s atmosphere, which extends far away from the Sun’s surface.  It is where many interesting space weather phenomena originate- including the acceleration of the fast solar wind.  The short eclipse period will give researches a short but critical window over which to learn more about how the corona behaves.

The corona is not easy to observe.  Under normal conditions, it is completely washed out by the light of the sun- it’s like trying to see the distant light of a cell phone screen which is directly adjacent to a headlight.  In research, tools known as coronagraphs are used.  These are telescopes with fixed occulting disks to block out the light of the Sun, allowing us to observe the corona.  An example is the LASCO coronagraph aboard the SOHO satellite.  You’ll notice that the occulting disk is very large- much larger than the radius of the Sun.  This is to prevent visual artifacts that would otherwise ruin the image.  During the eclipse, the Moon covers up much less of the corona than an occulting disk but does not suffer from light artifacts because the moon is very distant compared to the observer.  Therefore, the eclipse gives us perfect conditions to see the solar atmosphere.  

While I won’t be making observations of the corona, I will be on a short trip to make sure that I don’t miss the eclipse.  I’ll share pictures and video here when I return!

Space Weather Warning – What to Look For

Once again, there’s a space weather storm warning issued by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.  There are accompanying news pieces, too; especially in states and areas that are more likely to see aurora.  Then, of course, there are some rather colorful pieces, too, that do not help the reader understand what will happen.

Overall, it’s really hard to get a handle on how big a storm is going to be before it happens.  This is true for scientists and the layperson as well.  As we wait for this storm to hit, here’s some things to look for as the storm approaches and begins:

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Space Weather Research: 40 Years of M-I Coupling

A key area of study in space weather is magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling, often abbreviated as M-I coupling.  This area deals with how the activities in the magnetosphere (the region of space where the Earth’s magnetic field dominates) and the ionosphere (the very top of the Earth’s atmosphere, where electrically neutral gasses are ionized by solar radiation).  These two regions physically couple in many ways.  Electric currents flow from the magnetosphere down into the ionosphere, causing gasses to circulate with the currents.  The ionosphere will resist and regulate the flow of electrical current and gas, changing the electric fields within the magnetosphere.  Plasma, or electrically charged gas, escapes from the ionosphere and populates the magnetosphere, changing mass content of near-Earth outer space.

Confusing?  It is, even to scientists.  M-I coupling is fundamental to understanding the characteristics and dynamics of space and space weather, but it is complicated, detailed, and heavily inter-dependent on many processes.  Scientists have been working on this topic for decades.  In 1974, a group of scientists sequestered themselves in Yosemite National Park with the goal of advancing their understanding of a hot new topic, M-I coupling:

Forty years later, in 2014, a second M-I coupling workshop was held at Yosemite National Park to see how our understanding has evolved over four decades.  It included many of the scientists who attended the first M-I workshop, and each block of talks was preceded by footage from the original workshop and remarks to add historical context to our work.  It was a unique experience of new and old; a singular conference where each presenter could see the giants on whose shoulders we stand. Continue reading “Space Weather Research: 40 Years of M-I Coupling”

Space Weather Workshop: Day 3

I’m back from the Space Weather Workshop and catching up after a week away.  I’ll keep posting my notes from the remainder of the workshop.

There is something about the day after the banquet night at any workshop.  Perhaps it’s because it represents the half-way point of the meeting.  Perhaps it’s because most people who had the responsibility of presenting are done and relieved.  Perhaps it’s just the after-effect of an evening of eating or drinking.  Whatever it is, the day after the banquet is always looser and more relaxed.  The energy is still there in the presentations and conversations, but everyone is more easy-going.  This sets the stage for another excellent day at the workshop. Continue reading “Space Weather Workshop: Day 3”

Space Weather Workshop: Day 2

I’m at the Space Weather Workshop, an annual meeting sponsored by the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. When it comes to interfacing space weather science, policy, applications and forecasting, this is THE meeting to be at. I’ll be posting updates summarizing each day.

Chigo Ngwira of NASA & Catholic University of America discusses extreme space weather impacts at Earth.

Day 2 picked up where Day 1 left off: with government agencies discussing how they can assist and lead Research-To-Operations (R2O) work within the field of space weather.  NASA had a strong presence in the morning session.  The NASA Living With a Star (LWS) program has a long history of funding space weather science, but are now changing their requirements to emphasize R2O.  Funded computer modeling projects will be increasingly expected to undergo data-model testing to help NASA and the community understand how code improvements are advancing our ability to forecast.  There was also a presentation from NASA’s Community Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC).  This is an organization that collects computer models from the community and makes them available to everyone via web interfaces.  CCMC is working to be a validation hub that helps the LWS program evaluate different models.  They have been working hard to create a set of metrics (numbers that score model forecasts) to achieve this task effectively.  The strong NASA presence was rounded out by talks from NSF, SWPC, and the Air Force. Continue reading “Space Weather Workshop: Day 2”

Space Weather Workshop: Day 1

I’m at the Space Weather Workshop, an annual meeting sponsored by the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. When it comes to interfacing space weather science, policy, applications and forecasting, this is THE meeting to be at. I’ll be posting updates summarizing each day.


The stage setup for the Space Weather Workshop before the conference begins.  The “globe” in the center is a circular screen that shows various animations throughout the week.

This year, the conference was kicked off by a talk from Bill Murtagh, a SWPC employee and long-time advocate for Space Weather.  This talk focused on the challenges that remain for space weather forecasting, and wow do we have a long way to go!  He made a specific point concerning the “Halloween Storms” of 2003: the sun had no sun spots leading up to the event, leading us to believe that calm conditions were in our future.  A few days before the event, however, a very large and active sunspot snuck around the edge and produced the massive storm.  We remain very, very limited in our forecasting capabilities.

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It’s Quiet… Too Quiet.

Do you know what makes running a space weather blog easier? Space weather. Like, space weather actually happening.

Guess what’s not happening?  Space weather.  

That is, of course, and exaggeration.  Just like weather on the Earth, space weather is always happening.  Just like on Earth, however, when things are calm and boring, you are less likely to get cool news stories.  

This has been exactly the case with space weather.  The only events that we have observed in the past month or so are from coronal holes.  These are regions on the sun where the solar wind is faster than other places.  The fast solar wind catches up to the slow solar wind on the way to the Earth and compresses up against it.  This is similar to when you’re driving to work, and the slow guy in the fast lane causes ten cars to impatiently bunch up together.  When this bunched-up solar wind arrives at Earth, it creates a small space weather storm.  These types of events are boring and very easy to predict: given a slowly changing Sun, a single coronal hole (the source of fast solar wind) will create a space weather storm every 27 days, which is the time it takes for the Sun to rotate once.

To make things more interesting, we need solar active regions, or sunspots, to spice things up.  Sun spots are small regions on the Sun’s surface where the Sun’s magnetic field and particles are active and unstable.  They are the source of real space weather storms. 

The major problem for interesting space weather is that there are no sunspots.  None!

Images from the Solar Dynamic Observatory showing that Sun spots are on spring break.

This story from NASA has all the details, but the gist of it is that we are currently in a stretch of such weak solar activity that there are no observable sunspots.  The Sun has an activity cycle of 11 years.  We are right in the middle of solar minimum of Cycle 24, one of the most boring solar cycles in recorded history.  The cycle has hit an activity level of zero.  This is so boring that it wraps over and becomes interesting again.

Periods like this are sparse but not unheard of.  There have been long stretches of boring, notably, the Maunder Minimum of the late 1600s and early 1700s.  To be clear, we are not anywhere near that level of inactivity.  Indeed, if you wander over to the Solar Dynamics Observatory data site, you can see that sunspots have already returned.  However, the increasing amount of boring has led some scientists to wonder if we’re not heading into a new prolonged period of solar boring.  This would be especially exciting for solar physicists, who work to understand the solar dynamo.  For space weather, however, it would just be… boring.

See you on the dark side of the Sun.

This is pretty cool- CLaSP professor Justin Kasper is going to be featured in an upcoming Discovery Channel documentary called “The Dark Side of the Sun“.  The program will discuss space weather effects and how we learn about the Sun.  It will include extensive discussion on an upcoming mission, Solar Probe Plus, which will get closer to the sun than any previous mission.  It’s always exciting to see CLaSP researchers in the limelight for their work!

GPS as a Space Weather Monitor

GPS satellite orbits around the Earth.  Each satellite has a radiation sensor that can be used to learn more about the radiation belts.
GPS satellite orbits around the Earth. Each satellite has a radiation sensor that can be used to learn more about the radiation belts.

Big space weather news this week: measurements of the “radiation belts” made by the Global Positioning System satellites are now available to space weather researchers.  This is a huge deal for several reasons, but let’s start by unpacking that sentence:

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