NASA scientists have made a breakthrough in their quest to be able to accurately predict and forecast potentially harmful solar storms. Researchers were able to improve upon an already existing tool in order to render it more accurate: the coronagraph. The coronagraph is an instrument which has been built to let scientists examine the outer atmosphere of the sun, the corona, and help them recognize the signs of an impending coronal mass ejection (CME).
Whilst solar flares are known to occasionally disrupt satellite communication, CMEs are more powerful, and have the potential to knock out a satellite or even a power grid if strong enough. CMEs release solar energetic particles (SEPs), which are usually blocked by the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, leaving astronauts in low-Earth orbit as the group most vulnerable to them outside of satellites.
As aforementioned, coronagraphs aren’t a new invention, and they have often been mounted on satellites in space, but after several tests, scientists were able to determine that their use on the ground is far more beneficial. Ground-based coronagraphs delivered data almost instantly and at a much higher resolution than their space-based counterparts, who often took twenty to thirty minutes to send images. This time lapse between images could be troublesome for NASA, as space scientist Chris St. Cyr explains:
“You’ll see the CME in one frame, and by the time you get the next frame — which contains the information we need to tell how fast it’s moving — the energetic particles have already arrived [at Earth].”
The coronagraph used for the team’s studies, named K-Cor was based in NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, and has impressed the space science community so far. The data they received was of such high quality, that scientists were able to correctly predict a CME and accompanying SEPs up to forty-five minutes before they happened.
This development made NASA scientists especially giddy, as they hope to improve upon the system further, to make it a real-time early warning system, as one of K-Cor’s principal investigators, Joan Burkepile points out:
“Currently, processed images from K-Cor are available on the internet in less than 15 minutes after they’re taken. We’re installing a more powerful computer at the observatory in Hawaii to process the images seconds after they are acquired, and provide the data on the internet within a minute or two of acquisition.”