How Johns Hopkins APL-Led Center for Geospace Storms Will Bolster Our Knowledge of Space Weather
A scientific visualization of the MAGE simulation of the “SpaceX” storm performed by the CGS team. The SpaceX storm resulted in the loss of 38 Starlink satellites between February 3 and 7, 2022.
Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Scientific Visualization Studio
Mon, 11/27/2023 - 09:32
Weather forecasting plays a vital role in our daily lives, reminding us to carry an umbrella on rainy days or don a jacket as temperatures plummet. But in space, the weather can call for preparations on a much larger scale. Major space weather events can knock out power grids, endanger astronauts and disrupt communications technologies like the Global Positioning System (GPS) on Earth.
The Center for Geospace Storms (CGS), launched in 2020 and headquartered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, is developing predictive models that can provide a stronger grasp of space weather events and their potential impacts before they happen.
Once ready, the CGS space weather models can help industries and governments better predict when and how space weather events will affect various technological tools and systems.
The project is part of NASA’s Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, Educate (DRIVE) Science Centers program, which aims to encourage collaborative science by establishing multi-institutional centers that can address major research challenges in space and solar physics.
CGS’s quest for predictive space weather models continues as NASA launches the Heliophysics Big Year, a global celebration of solar science and the various influences the Sun wields over Earth and our solar system that kicked off in October and runs through 2024.
“Our vision is to transform the understanding and predictability of space weather,” said Slava Merkin, a space physicist at APL and director of CGS. “We are focusing on the fact that you cannot do one without the other. You cannot predict something without first understanding it deeply.”
How’s the Weather Out There?
Most space weather events are influenced by the Sun, which experiences massive violent storms that can generate eruptions called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These CMEs are bubbles of plasma that expand as they travel away from the Sun.
The charged particles from CMEs then interact with the space near Earth — called geospace — roughly one million miles of space around Earth that includes the magnetosphere, thermosphere and ionosphere.
The results of space weather generate incredible displays such as the aurora borealis and aurora australis, or northern and southern lights: the colorful parade of lights near the Earth’s poles.
But they can also wreak havoc. In 1989, Quebec, Canada, was submerged in darkness for more than nine hours after a major space weather event triggered the protection system of the province’s power grid.
In 2022, several Starlink spacecraft crossed paths with a modest geomagnetic storm, causing the satellites’ orbits to degrade and the satellites themselves to burn up in the atmosphere.
“These really big events that happen on the surface of the Sun travel through interplanetary space and then interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and can have really big impacts,” said Mike Wiltberger, deputy director at CGS and space physicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).
APL has built and operated dozens of spacecraft missions and instruments to provide a better understanding of space weather. The Van Allen Probes, launched in 2012, offered deeper insight into the dynamics of Earth’s radiation belts and their response to geomagnetic storms, while Parker Solar Probe, launched in 2018, is revolutionizing what we know about the Sun and events like CMEs.
“The need to understand the space environment continues to grow as our civilization builds greater and greater reliance on space-based technology and pushes to explore beyond Earth,” said Ian Cohen, deputy chief scientist for APL’s Space Exploration Sector. “Space weather has many effects across multiple commercial industries, national security, human exploration and everyday life.”
How Does Space Weather Affect Us?
The impacts of space weather on Earth fall into four categories:
Communications. Space weather events can create instability and disruption in the ionosphere, which is a conducting and reflecting layer of the atmosphere helpful in transmitting signals like radio waves.
Radiation. Solar storms can generate high-energy particles delivering enhanced radiation doses to astronauts in space. “If we’re thinking about, for example, sending a spacecraft with astronauts to the Moon or to Mars, we want to know if there’s going to be a big radiation risk,” Merkin said.
Thermospheric expansion. When a strong storm happens, it heats up the Earth’s upper atmosphere, or thermosphere. This expansion can create drag on satellites moving in low Earth orbit (LEO) and knock them off track.
Geomagnetically induced currents. As electric currents created by space weather pummel Earth, they induce rapidly varying magnetic fields that can damage power grids or affect railroads.
A Collaborative Effort
At CGS, APL is working with several scientific and educational institutions on the models to better improve our understanding of space weather and its impacts on Earth.
“Understanding what phenomena lead to these space weather effects and how changes in the Sun and/or geospace may increase or decrease their likelihood or severity is a critical part of building a capability to forecast such events and hopefully mitigate and respond to their effects,” Cohen said.
The Multiscale Atmosphere Geospace Environment (MAGE) model that CGS is currently building is a group of predictive space weather simulations attempting to gauge how space weather events affect our planet both at a massive scale and down to the surface of the Earth.
The simulations have to provide predictions at multiple levels because some smaller-scale processes can generate broader global impacts.
“We’re dealing with a system that goes from, approximately, a couple million kilometers above Earth, down to less than 100 kilometers in the ionosphere,” Merkin said. “The scales that we need to cover in our simulations are just vastly different.”
Instead of a standard weather forecast, where you might learn the odds of rain or snow where you live, MAGE will soon recognize when a space weather event happens and project how it could affect Earth in the various regions of geospace.
“The region we’re describing is very big, but the interesting physics happens at very small scales,” said Amy Keesee, the Broadening Impacts section head at CGS and associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire. “This requires a lot of computer power to model accurately. As a comparison to regular weather forecasting on Earth, we are trying to model a larger, more complex system with much less data.”
Creating space weather models as sophisticated as MAGE requires a variety of different perspectives and expertise. APL leads CGS, partnering with NCAR, the University of New Hampshire, Rice University, Virginia Tech, UCLA and Syntek Technologies.
CGS also collaborates with other universities, museums and planetariums across the country, as well as with the NASA Community Coordinated Modeling Center and a growing number of international collaborators to foster broadening impacts and provide career opportunities for students and early-career scientists.
“We’re not just focused on the science,” Merkin said. “We’re also trying to educate the next generation of scientists and the future workforce.”
To learn more about CGS, visit cgs.jhuapl.edu.
The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.