Science

Forecasting space weather is difficult. A new Australian satellite can help make it easier

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. The post contributed the article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Brett Carter, Senior Lecturer at RMIT University

Iver Cairns, Professor of Space Physics, University of Sydney

The Australian-made space weather satellite CUAVA-1 was launched into orbit from the International Space Station on Wednesday (October 6). Launched to the space station in August aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, one of the main goals of this shoebox-sized CubeSat is to study what the sun’s radiation does in the atmosphere and electronic devices on Earth.

Space weather, like solar flares and changes in the solar wind, affect Earth’s ionosphere (a layer of charged particles in the upper atmosphere). This, in turn, has an impact on long-distance radio communications and the orbits of some satellites, as well as creating fluctuations in the electromagnetic field that can wreak havoc on electronics in space and down to the ground.

The new satellite is the first designed and built by the Australian Research Council Training Center for Cubesats, UAVs and their applications (or CUAVA for short). It carries payloads and technology demonstrators built by collaborators from the University of Sydney, Macquarie University and UNSW-Sydney.

One of the goals of CUAVA-1 is to help improve space weather forecasts, which are currently very limited. In addition to its scientific mission, CUAVA-1 also represents a step towards the Australian Space Agency’s goal of growing the local space industry by 20,000 jobs by 2030.

Satellites and space weather

While the Australian Space Agency was formed only in 2018, Australia has a long history in satellite research. In 2002, for example, FedSat was one of the first satellites in the world to carry a GPS receiver on board.

Today’s space-based GPS receivers make it possible to routinely measure the atmosphere around the world to monitor and predict the weather. The Bureau of Meteorology and other weather forecasting agencies rely on space-based GPS data in their predictions.

Read more: Lost in space: Australia shrank from space leader to also ran in 50 years

Space-based GPS receivers also allow monitoring of the Earth’s ionosphere. From heights of about 50 to 620 miles (80 to 1000 kilometers), this layer of the atmosphere changes from a gas of uncharged atoms and molecules to a gas of charged particles, both electrons and ions. (A gas of charged particles is also called a plasma.)

The ionosphere is the location for the beautiful auroral displays that are common at high latitudes during moderate geomagnetic storms or “bad space weather,” but there is much more.

The ionosphere can cause difficulties in satellite positioning and navigation, but is sometimes useful as well, such as when ground-based radio and radar signals can bounce to scan or communicate over the horizon.

Technology and infrastructure affected by space meteorological phenomena.

Technology and infrastructure affected by space meteorological phenomena. (Image credit: NASA)

Why space weather is so hard to predict

Understanding the ionosphere is an important part of operational space weather prediction. We know that the ionosphere becomes very irregular during severe geomagnetic storms. It interrupts the radio signals that pass through it and creates surges of electrical current in electrical networks and pipes.

During severe geomagnetic storms, a large amount of energy is poured into the Earth’s upper atmosphere near the north and south poles, while also changing currents and flows in the equatorial ionosphere.

This energy dissipates through the system, causing widespread changes throughout the upper atmosphere and altering high-altitude wind patterns above the equator hours later.

In contrast, X-rays and ultraviolet radiation from solar flares directly heat the atmosphere (above the ozone layer) above the equator and mid-latitudes. These changes influence the amount of drag experienced in low Earth orbit, making it difficult to predict satellite tracks and space debris.

Even outside of geomagnetic storms, there are “time of silence” disturbances that affect GPS and other electronic systems.

Read more: Predicting daily space weather will help keep your GPS on target

At present, we cannot make accurate predictions of bad space weather beyond about three days earlier. And the continuing effects of bad space weather on Earth’s upper atmosphere, including disturbances to GPS and communications and changes in satellite resistance, are even more difficult to forecast in advance.

As a result, most space weather prediction agencies are restricted to “nowcasting” – observing the current state of space weather and projecting for the next few hours.

Much more science will be needed to understand the connection between the sun and Earth, how the sun’s energy dissipates through the Earth system, and how these changes to the system influence the technology we increasingly rely on for everyday life. .

This means more research and more satellites, especially for the equatorial and middle latitudes relevant to Australians (and indeed most people on Earth). We expect CUAVA-1 to be a step towards a constellation of Australian space weather satellites that will play a key role in predicting future space weather.

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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