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NASA Launches New Center to Tackle Growing Threat of Space Weather and Enhance Planetary Protection

Scientists worked on the ACE space probe at a NASA lab before it launched in 1997. Since its launch, the instrument has been orbiting the sun and measuring solar energetic particles. That data will be compiled to make up part of the CLEAR Center’s comprehensive benchmark dataset. Photo credit: NASA.

Particularly when it comes to high-energy particles, space may be perilous, and strong solar activity can endanger both human safety and modern technology on Earth. NASA has given the University of Michigan’s CLEAR space weather forecasting center five years of funding in order to address the possible risks.

There’s no quietness about the sun. Its surface reaches a boiling point of more than 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,500 degrees Celsius), and intricate magnetic and electric forces spiral down and emerge from the depths. Solar storms are caused by the complex interaction between the sun’s own magnetic fields and its superheated plasma. Abrupt eruptions, coronal mass ejections, and flares are examples of these occurrences that unleash massive quantities of energy into the solar system.

Pure radiation is one way that the emissions might appear sometimes. Occasionally, whole globules of solar material burst from the surface and slowly approach the planets. However, the sun frequently unleashes storms of solar energetic particles (SEPs), which are charged particles that fly at almost the speed of light and consist of protons and electrons.

SEPs have a lot of power. SEPs have the ability to strike Earth at times of high solar activity, overriding its magnetic field and potentially breaking through the atmosphere to shower the planet’s surface with lethal radiation. Everything in space is particularly susceptible. Sensors can be harmed, and electronics can become disorganized.

Astronauts may experience a single powerful incident that exceeds their lifetime radiation exposure. Since SEPs may harm DNA and cause cancer, radiation damage is in fact seen as one of the largest obstacles to long-term space flight. This is an issue that needs to be resolved if we are to conduct frequent human trips to Mars and beyond.

Because of their extraordinary speed, SEPs can enter Earth’s orbit in a matter of minutes, giving us little time to prepare for impending SEP storms. NASA has granted a team of researchers at the University of Michigan five-year funding to establish the CLEAR Space Weather Center of Excellence, which will be focused on delivering precise and fast space weather predictions to warn of SEP storm occurrences, acknowledging the gravity of the issue.

To address the issue of SEP prediction, the CLEAR Center will bring together astronomers and astrophysicists with a wide range of disciplines, from observers to theorists. They will forecast when solar flares and coronal mass ejections—which trigger SEPs—are most likely to occur using theoretical models of the solar surface.

The original goal of the CLEAR Center was to create instruments that would alert astronauts and operators of space instruments of potentially dangerous space weather in any part of the solar system in advance. Although space weather forecasts for certain regions of Earth may currently be produced, this has never been done for the whole solar system.

Forecasts from the new tool will be “similar to the weather app on your phone,” according to Zhao. There, severe weather is predicted to occur within the next several hours or perhaps days. A similar result will be produced by our technology for the energetic particles that the sun emits.

Additionally, much like your phone, the device will provide 24-hour predictions and alarms prior to hazardous space weather so that astronauts and instrument operations may schedule their activities around safe space weather windows. According to Zhao’s “best case scenario,” their upgraded forecasting technology will be available in time for the scheduled lunar landing of the Artemis mission, which takes place during a period of increased solar activity.

Currently, 36 models are in use across different organizations. Some, which only use established physics, are incredibly precise yet costly to operate, particularly when done in real time when every second matters. Therefore, by the time the SEP storm reached Earth, we would have ample time to estimate its intensity, even if we were to witness a coronal mass ejection in the process of occurring.

The other method is to forecast the arrival time of a new storm by analyzing the characteristics of previous ones. These machine learning methods are quicker since they make use of straightforward algorithms to ascertain if the proper circumstances emerge on the surface of the sun. But because the algorithms just attempt to correlate observable variables with the likelihood of a SEP storm eruption—they do not “know” the underlying physics—they are currently far less precise and trustworthy.

Space weather experts plan to combine these two methods with the CLEAR center. The goal is to create physics-based models more quickly and efficiently and utilize them to supplement the history-based models. This will create an effective pipeline that can use solar data in real time to produce prompt and precise forecasts of SEP storm occurrences. The harm that these storms bring to all space activities can be lessened if NASA uses these forecasts to alert satellite operators and human spaceflight missions of the approaching hazard.


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