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New Tool Can Help Forecast Solar Storms 24 Hours Before Hitting Earth: Why This Is Crucial

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Coronal mass ejections (CMEs), eruptions of solar gas and magnetized materials notably associated with solar storms, can potentially wreak havoc on satellites and other technologies on Earth.

CMEs, for instance, can affect GPS technology, disrupt radio transmissions, cause blackouts and affect aircraft systems' ability to precisely determine the distance of the plane from the ground for landing.

However, satellites can only detect with certainty an approaching solar storm when it is already relatively close to our planet.

The 30 to 60 minutes of notice this provides is not enough to come up with the necessary measures for preventing impact. Scientists, however, may have come up with a new way to predict this solar event more than 24 hours in advance.

"What we have now is effectively only a 30 to 60 minute heads up of a CME's configuration before it hits Earth's magnetosphere," said Neel Savani, from the Imperial College London. "We don't have a real time method for measuring or modeling this magnetic field more than an hour before a space weather impact."

The new technique developed by Savani and colleagues takes into account where CMEs originated from the sun. Savani explained that the magnetic field's behavior within the CMEs would rely on their initial form when they erupted from the sun and how they evolved as they travel toward Earth.

Mass ejection comes from two points on the solar surface and forms a cloud that gets discharged into space. This cloud is made up of twisted magnetic field and if one of these meets the magnetic field of the Earth, the interaction would cause a geomagnetic storm.

Previous predictions depended on measuring the initial CME eruption but these do not suffice at modeling what takes place between the birth and arrival of the cloud on Earth.

The new technique looks closely at where the mass ejections come from on the surface of the sun as well as use observations to track and model how the cloud evolves.

The researchers used the technique on eight previous mass ejections and the results were promising; it could improve the forecasting of solar storms that are directed toward Earth.

The model that Savani and colleagues developed is crucial because, once this is perfected, it could be used to provide alerts to industries that need space weather forecasts, including utility companies, airlines and the military.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Space Weather on June 9.

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | Flickr

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