Scientists from NASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado discover the technique that will protect our astronauts in space.
The new technique, which is published in Space Weather, could be able to detect one type of space weather event tens of minutes earlier than currently available forecasting techniques. This extra time will protect our astronauts in space.
We all are well aware that it is Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere that protect us on the ground from most of the harmful effects of space weather. But astronauts are more exposed to space weather such as bursts of fast-moving particles known as solar energetic particles.
Speaking about the new technique lead author on the study Chris St. Cyr, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, share
“Robotic spacecraft are usually radiation-hardened to protect against these kinds of events. But humans are still susceptible.”
In the paper, researchers demonstrated that tracking an associated kind of solar explosion—fast-moving clouds of magnetic solar material, called coronal mass ejections—can help.
With the help of coronagraph, a type of instrument in which a solid disk blocks the sun’s bright face and reveal the sun’s tenuous atmosphere, scientists closely observe coronal mass ejections. They are widely used in space weather research due to their wide-field solar views that are uninterrupted by cloud cover or Earth’s rotation.
But ground-based coronagraphs have their own advantages—while they can only observe the sun in the day during clear weather, they can return data almost instantly, and at a much higher time resolution than satellite instruments. This speed of data return could make a significant difference, given that SEPs can move at nearly the speed of light—so their total travel time can be less than an hour from the time they’re accelerated near the sun to when they reach Earth.
“With space-based coronagraphs, we get images back every 20-30 minutes,” said St. Cyr. “You’ll see the CME in one frame, and by the time you get the next frame—which contains the information we need to tell how fast it’s moving—the energetic particles have already arrived.”
Scientists worked very hard to see if they could use a ground-based coronagraph to get key information on the CME’s speed fast enough to lengthen the warning time. They selected a SEP event and then went back to check if the data was available from a coronagraph called K-Cor, which is part of NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory and sits on top of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. Their search confirmed that the necessary information to predict the arrival of the energetic particles was available about 45 minutes before the particles arrived at Earth—tens of minutes before they left the sun’s inner atmosphere.
The next step is to repeat this study over and over—using both archived data and future observations—in order to see if the early signatures of these energetic particles can be reliably detected in K-Cor’s.