Newswise — Satellites placed into space could transmit upgraded alerts of perilous solar storms due to a revolutionary advancement in scientists' utilization of space weather measurements.

Researchers from the University of Reading have discovered that employing swiftly returned, albeit less dependable, satellite data can enhance solar wind predictions—streams of charged particles emitted by the sun—with an approximate 50 percent increase in accuracy.

Their study, released on Thursday, 18 May, in the journal Space Weather, has the potential to open doors for agencies like the Met Office to deliver more precise forecasts regarding severe space weather. Such advancements are crucial as they can help mitigate the risk of blackouts and protect human well-being.

Harriet Turner, the lead researcher from the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, emphasized the importance of enhancing our understanding and predictions of space weather. While we possess considerable knowledge about preparing for terrestrial storms, there is a critical need to advance our forecasting capabilities for hazardous space weather. Such phenomena pose a significant threat to our technology-dependent lifestyle, as they have the potential to disrupt power grids, impair satellite systems like GPS, and even impact the health of astronauts.

"Our investigation has demonstrated the efficacy of utilizing prompt satellite measurements for space weather forecasting. By deploying spacecraft to distant locations from Earth, we can leverage this novel technique to enhance the accuracy of solar storm predictions, thereby enabling better preparedness for future events."

Simon Machin, the Space Weather Manager at the Met Office, expressed the significance of collaboration between the Met Office and academia, citing it as a prime example. He highlighted that by incorporating scientific research into operational practices, the overall forecasting of space weather can be enhanced, ultimately strengthening the nation's capacity to effectively prepare for and mitigate the impacts of space weather events.

Old dogs and new tricks

In order to predict space weather, scientists employ a combination of computer simulations and space observations to estimate the conditions of solar wind reaching Earth. This process, known as data assimilation, involves integrating the available data to forecast future space weather events. However, it should be noted that the most reliable observations are typically processed and refined on the ground, resulting in a delay of several days before they become available. Consequently, the cleaning and processing stages prolong the time required to generate accurate forecasts.

To expedite the forecasting process, the research team explored the utilization of near-real-time (NRT) data. NRT data, unlike its processed counterpart, does not undergo any cleaning or refinement procedures, making it less accurate. However, it can be accessed within a couple of hours. Surprisingly, the research team discovered that forecasts generated using NRT data still yielded dependable predictions, offering extended warning periods. This advancement has the potential to assist authorities in better preparing for power outages, which have incurred costs of up to 2.1 trillion dollars over a century in the United States and Europe.

To the stars

The scientists involved in this recent study assert that implementing this new technique in upcoming space missions will result in improved forecasts. By incorporating the insights gained from their research, future space missions can leverage this approach to enhance the accuracy and reliability of space weather predictions.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has plans to launch a groundbreaking mission called 'Vigil' in the mid-2020s. This mission will be the first of its kind and will be equipped with a range of instruments developed in the UK. The primary objective of Vigil is to monitor potentially dangerous solar activity, enabling scientists to gather crucial data and insights regarding solar storms and other hazardous phenomena originating from the Sun.

Through the strategic positioning of the spacecraft 60 degrees behind Earth in longitude, the Met Office aims to enhance space weather forecasts. By employing data assimilation techniques and incorporating near-real-time (NRT) solar wind data, they can improve the accuracy and reliability of the forecasts. This innovative approach allows for more timely and efficient utilization of the NRT data, enabling better preparation and mitigation measures against potential space weather events.

Journal Link: Space Weather