On Campus Profile - George Sofko (On Campus Weatherman)

by Keith Patrick Moen

A group achievement award from NASA is only the most recent acknowledgment that U of S engineering physics professor George Sofko (PhD'69) is a leading authority on a very unusual topic - space weather. "Even twenty years ago people thought the study of space weather was pretty esoteric," Sofko begins. "But then people started to see some very practical applications and overtones for industry and the military."

Sofko first became interested in space science in the late 1950s. After completing his undergraduate degree, he was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which allowed him to pursue graduate studies at the institution of his choice. He chose to study at the University of Saskatchewan. "At the time, it was the leading university in North America in space and atmospheric studies. And it was very well-known for radar projects, which was my particular area of interest," Sofko says.

Since then, Sofko has studied space weather extensively. Specifically, Sofko studies solar wind energy, and what happens when particles from the sun meet the earth's magnetic field. This convergence takes place in an area called the magnetosphere and, most significantly for us on earth, in an area where hundreds of satellites are in orbit.

Once the almost exclusive domain of the world's governments and military, satellites now play a key role in the lives of almost everyone in the developed world. And space weather can destroy satellite electronics. Sofko points to the communications industry to demonstrate just how pervasive satellite technology has become. From television to banking, satellites facilitate billions of dollars of global business activity every day. Damage to even a single satellite can cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost business. And, as more and more satellites are launched into orbit every year, the problem grows. In fact, almost 1,000 new commercial satellites will be put into orbit over the next five years. "At one time, people thought in terms of putting up a satellite. Now they think in terms of dozens of satellites because they want global coverage," Sofko says. "So anything we can do to monitor and predict space weather is a help to satellite operators." But problems with satellites are only one area of concern for Sofko. He says solar winds also cause problems on the earth's surface. In fact, solar winds can, through a chain of events, generate airborne electrical currents that can knock out power transformers and create fire-starting sparks on natural gas pipelines. "The study of space weather is more important now than ever. In fact, it's become almost as important as weather here on earth," Sofko adds.

Sofko now studies solar winds as part of an international consortium of scientists and researchers who have constructed a series of paired radar stations in locations around the world. As part of "SuperDARN" - the dual auroral radar network - these stations create "voltage maps" which are used to both position satellites and complement the measurements they take. It is the consortium's support to the United States space program that led to the recent award from NASA.

Currently, there are 11 SuperDARN stations around the world. Sofko oversees the operation of one of these stations - located just outside of Saskatoon - and is in the process of securing funding to construct another station in British Columbia. Stations are also located in such diverse locations as Iceland, Finland and Antarctica. Ultimately, Sofko would like to see a network of 24 stations world-wide. "Then we could monitor activity completely around the globe," Sofko says.