By Mari-Louise Rowley
Solar winds, or flows of hot plasma from the Sun, cause magnetic storms in the magnetosphere. They release high voltage primary electrons from space that collide with neutral molecules and knock off electrons, creating more positively charged molecules, or ions, and secondary electrons. The huge amplification of charged particles created by incoming electrons causes the brilliant visual display of northern lights. During a typical geomagnetic storm, 50 gigawatts of power can deluge Earth’s ionosphere. By comparison, SaskPower’s total generating capacity in 2006 was a fraction of this—3,660 megawatts.
Contrary to the image of a cold, empty vacuum, outer space is a tumultuous place, with ferocious storms that can knock out satellites, endanger astronauts and blow out power grids on Earth.
Instead of winds and storms driven by high and low pressure systems, which we experience on Earth, the weather in space is a churning miso soup of plasma—electrically charged gas driven by high and low voltage systems.
Space weather, fuelled by energetic particles and radiation from the Sun, can cause massive power outages, pipeline corrosion and radio blackouts, and can degrade GPS positioning and increase radiation dosage to airline pilots and passengers. The radiation can penetrate spacecraft and spacesuits, damage equipment and bombard satellites, wreaking havoc with electronic systems.
Accurate forecasts of space weather are crucial for global communications and commerce. There are roughly 800 satellites in space, each worth about $200 million. With hardware alone totalling $160 billion and daily business transactions in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars, there is a lot at stake.
But forecasting space weather—a critical area of research for University of Saskatchewan physicists—turns out to be just as challenging as forecasting Earth weather, and involves measuring and analyzing the volatile flux and flow of charged particles in space.
“This research is particularly important for Canada, because northern communities are most strongly affected by space weather,” says Kathryn McWilliams, U of S assistant professor of physics and engineering physics.
McWilliams is part of an international consortium of researchers who study and monitor extreme weather events in space.
With funding from the Canadian Space Agency, NSERC and the U.S. National Science Foundation, McWilliams is a key member of the U of S team that is setting up new radars in Inuvik, which will pair with the radar set up in Rankin Inlet in 2006. These new radars comprise PolarDARN, the first SuperDARN (Super Dual Auroral Radar Network) radars to study space weather over the polar caps.
The aurora borealis is a manifestation of electromagnetic storms, a phenomenon U of S researchers with the Institute of Space and Atmospheric Studies have been studying for decades.