Living with a Star

Space Weather and Its Effects

The aurora borealis observed in Norway on October 28, 2006. Image by Rafal Konieczny.
The aurora borealis observed in Norway on October 28, 2006. Image by Rafal Konieczny. (Click to enlarge.)

Our 365 Days of Astronomy podcast for March 19, 2009 takes us on a short visit to MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts. There, a group of atmospheric researchers study Earth’s atmosphere and how it is affected by space weather — a  term that atmospheric scientists apply to the geomagnetic and near-earth disturbances caused by solar storms, and most often as a result of coronal mass ejections. Most of us are familiar with the aurora borealis and aurora australis — which are caused by space weather. These are gorgeous light shows made as different gases flouresce in our upper atmosphere.

But, space weather also has its dangerous side. A strong space weather event can disrupt telecommunications, navigation systems, satellite signals, and even shut down power grids.

In fact, in March 1989, a huge space weather event set up huge circulating currents that overloaded a power grid in Canada — shutting off the lights for thousands of people across Eastern Canada.

One of the latest technologies — the global positioning system (GPS)– is as susceptible to interruptions by geomagnetic storms as any other communications system. Because we rely on GPS for many things, including timing signals for cellular phones, ATM systems, as well as navigation signals for airplanes, ships, trains, and even our cars, a GPS outage could be a real problem.

So, how could this affect you personally? Well, imagine if a big solar flare stirred up huge space weather storms here and disrupted GPS timing signals that banking systems use for financial transactions.  It’s entirely possible that if those signals are stopped or even delayed, it could (and I stress “COULD”) keep you or me or any of millions of people from getting money out of an ATM machine.

Many “bits” of our technological society are tied together using systems that are vulnerable during space weather storms.  In fact, NASA recently sent out a press release about the risks to our technology from space weather. It’s important that we understand the risks from space weather and find out ways to avoid damaging our communications systems and power grids. That’s where space weather researchers come in — and what they learn each day by studying the effects of the Sun on Earth’s ionosphere and lower atmosphere is invaluable.

Space weather and its affects on technology. Courtesy L.J. Lanzerotti, Bell Laboratories (Lucent Technologies, Inc.)  (Click to enlarge.)
Space weather and its affects on technology. Courtesy L.J. Lanzerotti, Bell Laboratories (Lucent Technologies, Inc.) (Click to enlarge.)

Obviously, we’d all like to avoid disruptions due to solar storms — but it’s not  like we can predict when a storm will erupt from the Sun. We can, however, learn about how such storms proceed and affect our planet, and then use that knowledge to protect ourselves when space weather DOES attack.

Scientists at MIT Haystack Observatory — along with researchers around the world — are constantly studying the effects the Sun has on our ionosphere, which in turn affects  our technology in many ways.

To learn more about Haystack’s atmospheric science program, visit their Atmospheric Sciences page. In addition, we are working with Haystack to create a series of vodcasts about spaceweather called Space Weather FX. Check ’em out!

In addition, we have posted a great page of spaceweather links here.  You can also check out Spaceweather.com, which provides daily looks at the Sun, comets, meteor showers and other phenomena, as well as the Space Weather Center, the SEC/NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, and the SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) spacecraft page (which will give you up-to-date images of the Sun in various wavelengths).

Visit here for more information on GPS systems and here to learn about the WAAS system that pilots use for navigation.

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