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.This session was followed up by a another where end-users report how space weather affects them.  I love these sessions because they remind us why this conference takes place.  We heard from a non-profit power grid research organization, who highlighted the effects of space weather on the power grid.  At the heart of this discussion is the need to get accurate and timely forecasts.  The best way to prevent space-weather damage to the power grid during strong storms is to briefly shut down portions of the grid.  Such shutdowns can cost millions, but long term power outages will cost billions.  This was followed up by a presentation by representatives from Delta airlines.  Space weather increases the radiation exposure to the crew of polar flights and interrupts radio communications to flights.  Both of these can cause long flights to be redirected to avoid these hazards at the cost of thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.  Finally, we heard from a representative of a European railway consultancy company.  Space weather drives electric currents through long rails, interrupting rail systems and trains.  This talk was a good reminder of the breadth of industries that are affected by space weather.

After lunch, we returned to science.  One of the great goals of space weather is understanding the extremes: how bad can any one event get?  If we know this, we can work to engineer our systems to be more naturally resilient to space weather related damage.  A set of three talks outlined our current knowledge of extremes from the Sun, at the Earth, and in the atmosphere.  A talk from SWPC then discussed their goals for their desired benchmarks for extreme events.  My personal highlight was Chigo Ngwira’s talk (pictured above), showing extreme impacts at Earth via numerical modeling.  

Dr. Alan Stern shows images of Pluto and its moons as viewed from the New Horizons mission.

In the evening, there was the banquet.  This is always a highlight as the conference organizers excel at bringing in exciting speakers, ranging from citizen scientists to astronauts.  This year’s speaker was Alan Stern, who (amongst other major achievements) led the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond.  This mission took 26 years from conception to arrival at Pluto.  The story of the mission is amazing and involved substantial challenges.  Part of this was the requirement that the satellite be built in about 5 years, which is half of the time that it took to build Voyager.  The requirement was a function of orbits- there is a narrow launch window if the satellite is going to get a gravity boost from Jupiter on the way to Pluto.  Missing this window delays the launch by decades.  The science obtained by this mission once it arrived at Pluto is amazing- we usually think of the famous pictures we see in the news, but there is so much more: glaciers of nitrogen, mountainous blades of ice, and twirling moons.  It was a brilliant presentation that shared the excitement of discovery with the audience.