Granite Geek: How to Monitor Space Weather

Nov 30, 2016

If regular people ever get to travel to space, we’ll have to contend with something astronauts already worry about: space weather. That weather comes in the form of something called “solar wind”, which is generated by the charged particles thrown off by the sun. It can affect satellites, our atmosphere here on Earth, and any space travelers.

Granite Geek David Brooks has been looking into a machine decades in the making at the University of New Hampshire that can detect this kind of space weather and potentially give us a heads-up if dangerous solar wind is headed our way. David is a reporter for the Concord Monitor and a regular guest on NHPR’s All Things Considered

So David, this device is called the energetic heavy ion sensor, and it’s designed to detect space weather.  How does it do that?

As it was explained to me by Cliff Lopate who’s sort of the principle investigator – the P.I. in science talk – basically it’s got semi-conductors that when a heavy ion or an atom – an ionized atom – runs into them, it knocks electrons up in a way that generates a pulse and that pulse says, “hey, I’ve been hit by something”.  And it is flying as part of a series of instruments that are on a weather satellite called GOES-R, which is one of a series of weather satellites that have been going up for a long time.  They’re geostationary, they stay over the same part of the earth at all times, and they… we’re most familiar with them because they help for long range weather forecast down on earth – earth weather not space weather – and this one was launched just a couple weeks ago.

Who spent so many years developing it?

Lots of years, that was actually the big surprise to me.  So there are a number of UNH researchers that have been involved in satellites… building instruments, designing instruments that go up on satellites to do various things, including measure space weather.  And this one dates back if you go back to the very first efforts to the turn of the millennium.  And the reason that it’s taken so very long is that this is an operational satellite as compared to a scientific research satellite.  So most of the time I’ve talked to scientists sending up material, basically they develop something to try to answer some sort of questions: what kind of space weather is up there?  So they devise this instrument, it goes up on a research satellite that stays up for a few years. 

This is an operational satellite that’s going to be answering questions about our weather for at least a decade, and as much as 15 years, and therefore the standards of how it has to operate and its reliability are much higher.  And that is the main reason why it has literally taken close to two decades since the first time people started saying, “we should send up a satellite that measures heavy ions” to when they actually launched it.

The crazy things about this is that these poor scientists have to watch as something they’ve spent almost 2 decades working on get positioned on many thousands of pounds of explosives and hope for the best.

Hope for the best.  I just can’t imagine what it’s like.  I’d be huddled in a fetal ball if I were them during the launch.

Certainly you have to be a strong person to be a scientist.  So we’ve been studying space weather as a society for some time now.  What’s different about this?

What’s different is that most or almost all of the studies so far has been of relatively light energy particles. Basically protons and electrons that have been knocked free and are flying around.  This device is designed to detect heavy ions, actual atoms of material all the way up to nickel on the periodic table, which have hundreds of time as much energy.  So they are of great concern. And that is one thing that has happened over the years as we’ve had more satellites up there.  We’ve realized that the protons and electrons which are vastly more numerous – 99 percent, perhaps – are a problem, but these very rare, very powerful heavy ions are also a serious problem that we don’t know much about.  So this device was devised specifically to start detecting them so we can learn more about when they come, why they come, what they’re composed of.  As a side effect, it can help predict solar storms that can be of issue because it can spot these ions, which sometimes go in different patterns and at different times than the lighter ions and therefore can help say, “hey, there’s a big problem coming.  The space shuttle should put up its shields, or a satellite should turn away from this big storm”.

Is there anything that this space weather detector could detect that would prompt officials to ask us to change our behavior here on earth?

That’s a good question.  Not that I know of, but certainly there are concerns about the possibility of extremely large solar storms affecting things like our GPS satellites.

Because I’ve seen in movies were there’s a solar pulse that, “oh my God! All the electronic devices on earth just shut right off.”  Of course that’s Sci-Fi, but…

Well, from what I’ve read it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.  How heavy ions play into that as compared to the rest of the solar wind I’m not sure of.  But that’s one of the reasons why you want to understand this stuff, just in case, “oh my gosh, there’s this threat we didn’t know about that we have to prepare for”, because it would be really bad if all of a sudden all of our GPS satellites were blown out of the air electronically.

And just to be clear, we don’t have any word that that’s happening.

No, no, no. Calm down, people.  Calm down.

I just don’t want to spark any alarm.  But David, what is next for this energetic heavy ion sensor?  It’s going to float 26,000 miles up there and just monitor things?

It could be in stasis for as long as five years depending on how many other satellites are up there, when they need to turn it on, and what they need to use.  And as I say it’s supposed to operate for at least 10 years once it gets turned on.  And basically what’s next is to gather the data.  Now the data will be used by a number of people including UNH researchers to understand the solar wind and what we should do, and how to prepare, and what’s up there.