When Stars Erupt
Predicting Space Weather
SPACE WEATHER. To some, it might sound cosmically boring. To others, it is wonderfully celestial. To you, it should be something to pay attention to.
Dr. Roger Dube, research professor at the Center for Imaging Science and director of RIT’s Space Exploration Program, is paying attention. He and the eight students working with him are using information gathered from telescopes, antennas and other sources to predict space weather patterns. By analyzing this data he hopes to be able to give advanced warning of anything that might affect us here on Earth.
Back in the mid 1800s, the use of electricity was slowly gaining popularity. The streets were lit by kerosene lanterns and more and more mail was being sent by the latest invention, the telegraph. The telegraph was the first electrical technology used by many people. Big cities were connected with telegraph lines allowing people to communicate much farther and more efficiently than was ever thought possible.
In 1858, a one-inch-diameter telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic Ocean. Known as the trans-Atlantic cable, it spanned thousands of miles from North America to Europe, allowing the first ever overseas instant message to be sent in Morse code.
In September 1859, a British astronomer noticed a large group of sunspots followed by an intensely bright light emerging from the sun. Shortly after that, the sky erupted in a swirl of red and green colors so bright that miners in Colorado thought it was morning and got up to make breakfast.
These astonishing colors lasted for around three days, lighting up the sky and inducing large electrical currents in the ground. This caused the telegraph wires to conduct massive amounts of electricity, inducing sparks “so big they would set the [telegraph] paper tape on fire,” according to Dube, and the Transatlantic cable to be completely melted. Disconnecting the batteries had no effect since the current was coming from outer space; however, that was not discovered until later.
The phenomena that melted an inch-thick wire at the bottom of the ocean is called a solar storm. This happens when, according to Dube, a coronal mass ejection “launches a large and high speed charged quantity of matter into the interplanetary region and if that happens to strike a planet, it experiences space weather.”
Unlike the weather one might experience in Rochester — snow, rain and more snow — space weather has nothing to do with precipitation and water formation. This type of weather is an “electrical phenomenon” that causes particles to pass over the earth moving very quickly. Large amounts of current passing over a planet will induce charges in the ground.
A mild form of space weather will cause aurora borealis. However, when a more severe form of space weather hits the Earth, it becomes an electrical storm. “[These storms are] much, much worse than any lightning strike,” explains Dube.
When a severe enough storm is sent towards earth, it sends currents through every wire in the area it hits, causing varying ranges of electrical damage. Recently, an area in Canada was hit with a minor storm, and as a result six million people lost power for a day.
If a storm is much worse, it can melt wires and create sparks that would do irreversible damage. According to the National Academy of Scientists, if we got hit by a severe storm today, it would take an estimated 10 years for society to recover.
Ten years without electricity means we would have no central air and heating. It means that the local Wegmans would lose much of its food because the freezers and refrigerators to keep it cold would not work. It means that there would be no way to contact a loved one or friend because all cell and home phones are useless.
Dube’s research investigates how we could predict space weather patterns and be forewarned of impending storms, so we can be ready. It starts with the information received from telescopes in space whose sole job is to monitor the activity on the surface of the sun. These telescopes look at the sun’s coronasphere, or upper atmosphere, and track the solar flares.
Another way of gathering information is through antennas that are placed on buildings to “monitor what’s happening electrically in the upper atmosphere.” There are three antennas here at RIT. One is on top of Engineering Hall (ENG 17), which can be seen if you go to the glass walkway on the second floor and look up towards the top of the building. The other two are on top of the RIT Inn and Racquet Club.
Data from the telescopes and antennas, as well as historical data is then feed into a neural network computer algorithm that is “designed to mimic how the human mind learns,” with the advantage of being much faster than any person. This computer looks for patterns in the events that happen before a storm so that we can have an indicator of when a storm is about to strike.
Right now the correlation coefficient is 0.95; however, the computer doesn’t have any data from before the 1980s because the technology to measure space weather patterns had not been invented yet. “Right now that gives us about three days warning,” says Dube. “But that’s not good enough.” His goal for the future is to have the information about a week in advance so that society can adequately prepare. As of now, there are no plans for what may be similar to a post-apocalyptic world without electricity, or even a plan of what to do if we receive advanced warning of a solar storm. Solar flares operate on cycles of peaks that occur every eleven years. The next is predicted to occur in July 2013. While severe space weather isn’t necessarily anticipated, Dube says that it is important to be ready because of the unpredictable nature of electric storms. While space weather is a nerve-wracking reality, the work of Dube and other scientists can help prepare us for the worst.
Last Modified: 2:48pm 09 May 12