Forecasting space weather

By Nathan Dyck

Keeping track of solar winds is as easy as predicting the weather in Calgary, according to a U of C researcher.

"Forecasting space weather is in a similar state now to what forecasting earth-based weather was [like] 30 years ago… in other words, it’s hit and miss," said Faculty of Science researcher Dr. Andrew Yau.

Yau is helping develop new instruments for research at the U of C-based Institute of Space Research, in order to improve space weather forecasting.

Working with the Canadian Space Agency, the U of C created major components for ├×ve satellites over the last 10 years.

"[This will] improve our understanding of magnetic storms to mitigate problems," said Yau.

The problems arise through rapid movement of charged particles in the atmosphere which can induce huge current movements in ground-based power-grids and knock out orbiting satellites, according to Yau. A recent storm disrupted power-grids around the world and disabled communications.

Yau is researching the cause of these electrical storms: solar winds hitting the earth’s atmosphere causing "charge interactions" to occur. These solar winds are hot ionized gasses streaming from the sun at supersonic speeds. When these charged invisible gasses hit the earth’s atmosphere they create storms, which are often visible as the Northern lights, or Aurora Borealis.

An upcoming U of C contribution to solar wind research was funded by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, a grant program aimed at assisting leading-edge projects. A new CSA research micro-satellite will contain three instruments from the U of C, including two particle detectors and one optical imager.

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