Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory LLC

11/27/2023 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 11/27/2023 08:37

How Johns Hopkins APL-Led Center for Geospace Storms Will Bolster Our Knowledge of Space Weather

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."