Solar Storms May be Predicted with New Technique

First Posted: Aug 12, 2015 04:45 PM EDT

Solar storms can impact our planet in big ways. When the sun hurls a billion tons of high-energy particles and magnetic fields into space at speeds of more than a million miles per hour, the resulting geomagnetic storm on Earth can wreak havoc on communication and navigation systems and electrical power grids. Now, researchers have created new tools for predicting the arrival and impact of solar storms.

Being able to predict when solar storms might impact Earth is important for scientific missions. That's why researchers are adding some powerful tools by using data from NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geo-chemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft.

"MESSENGER was the first spacecraft since the 1980s to make measurements of the interplanetary medium close to the sun," said Reka Winslow, one of the researchers, in a news release. "And the resulting data presents a unique opportunity for studying the evolution of ICMEs as they expand and propagate outward well before they reach Earth."

MESSENGER's onboard magnetometer actually collected a wealth of data relative to interstellar coronal mass ejections (ICME) magnetic fields. This particular data is what is now helping researchers improve space weather predictions.

The researchers can actually plug the data into models and simulations in order to help verify the robustness and accuracy of current predictive capabilities. The data will also help scientists prepare for missions to the inner solar system.

A key finding that the researchers uncovered concerns the speed and deceleration of ICMEs after their launch from the sun. Currently, scientists don't know exactly where on average ICMEs stop slowing down and continue towards Earth at a constant speed.

"From MESSENGER's data we know the deceleration phase continues beyond Mercury's orbit and stops before it gets to Earth, but where it reaches that point of constant speed is unclear," said Winslow. "And if we want to be able to forecast ICME arrival times at Earth more accurately we need to have a better handle on the deceleration of ICMEs beyond Mercury's orbit."

The findings reveal a bit more about solar storms and actually may help future forecasts. This could be huge in terms to timing space travel and protecting delicate equipment on space and on Earth.

The findings are published in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Space Physics.

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