Forecasting the final frontier

System that watches storms can monitor 'space weather' & help Mars mission

Aurora Australis

The Aurora Australis as seen from the Space Shuttle Discovery. Auroras are caused when high-energy electrons pour down from the Earth’s magnetosphere and collide with atoms.(NASA photo)

On Earth, a severe storm can wreak havoc on communities. But a weather event in space can impact entire planets.

As satellites multiply and the U.S. prepares to send astronauts to Mars, space agencies increasingly need forecasts of “space weather” – the storms of radiation that pour from the sun. Raytheon can meet that need with its Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, which delivers terrestrial weather information to U.S. forecasters and has the ability to monitor, visualize and display space weather.

“Space weather can disrupt communications, interfere with GPS signals, damage satellites, affect astronauts in space and even shut down the power grid,” said Brad Scalio, a meteorologist and chief engineer for Raytheon's  AWIPS program, which is used at more than 130 National Weather Service offices across the country. AWIPS could help protect astronauts on a future mission to Mars by tracking potentially dangerous radiation from solar activity.

Space weather includes three main types of threats: solar flares, solar energetic particles and coronal mass ejections. A coronal mass ejection is a large cloud of magnetized, hot plasma. It could cause geomagnetic storms on Earth, creating extra currents in the ground that could degrade power grid operations, according to Scalio. 

The planet just missed getting slammed by such a massive solar superstorm in 2012. Fortunately, the eruption happened facing away from the Earth; however, if it had been a week earlier, the planet would have been in the direct line of fire.

“Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket," according to a report from NASA. "Most people wouldn't even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.”

In October 2015, the White House issued a National Space Weather Strategy and an action plan “to understand, model, predict, respond to, and recover from space-weather events.”

To provide space weather alerts and warnings to the nation and the world for disturbances that can affect people and equipment working in space and on Earth, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s Space Weather Prediction Center issues geomagnetic and sun storm watches for the planet.

“Space weather can disrupt the technology and assets essential to our country’s economic vitality and national security, including satellite and airline operations, communications, navigation systems and the electricity in our homes and at work,” Scalio said. “That’s why it’s critical that we monitor solar activity.”

AWIPS already helps forecasters predict all kinds of Earth weather, from hurricanes to algae plumes. It is also well-suited to help predict weather events in space, according to Scalio.

“It was specifically designed to be agnostic to mission and domain," he said. "There may be a day when AWIPS makes the daily prediction for Mars. We’d just need data to ingest and interrogate.” And space weather will play a huge part in the success of NASA’s proposed human spaceflight to the Red Planet in the mid-2030s.

Forecast for Mars

“Logistically, the big challenges of food, water and power are significant, but shielding astronauts from the sun’s high energy will be the most challenging to overcome,” said Don McMonagle, a NASA astronaut who flew on three space shuttle missions. “No one has solved that equation on how you’ll protect them on the flight there, while they are there and on the return flight.”

Although Earth is constantly pelted with galactic cosmic rays, the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field deflects most of radiation coming from space. In deep space, it’s a different story, and astronauts can only spend a limited time without contracting serious health problems.

“Our Mars astronauts will be subjected to the full power of the solar wind, and a habitat on Mars, with its very thin atmosphere, will leave the astronauts almost naked to radiation,” said McMonagle, who works as RGNext program manager for the Air Force’s Launch Test Range Integration Support Contract. RGNext is a Raytheon joint venture with General Dynamics Information Technology.

Some studies suggest that a superflare, with its high-energy protons and radiation, could kill astronauts if the spacecraft isn’t properly protected.

That's where AWIPS could help. “Part of the solution is better predicting solar weather, so that astronauts know when to protect themselves from the spikes of the energy from the sun,” McMonagle said.

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Published On: 01/19/2017
Last Updated: 08/29/2018