Space is radioactive. One of the main sources of the radioactivity is the Sun, whose magnetic plasma atmosphere—the corona—constantly streams into space as a “solar wind.” Occasionally the wind can ramp up to speeds of 2 million miles per hour and buffet the Earth’s magnetic field, causing geomagnetic storms that load up the Van Allen radiation belts, interfere with radio and GPS transmissions, and even drive electrical currents in the ground that can impact the power grid.
The most visible effect of this “space weather” is the aurora: radiation funneled into the polar regions lights up the night sky as the Earth’s magnetic field works to shield us from the solar wind. Do we need to worry? As ground-dwellers, the natural effects are rarely a concern—who doesn’t like a nice Northern Lights show? The concern is that in addition to solar wind, the Sun can occasionally flare up and spew massive coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, into space. When these “magnetic tsunamis” wash over the Earth, they trigger the largest space weather storms, flooding the ionosphere with X-rays, scrambling airline radio and GPS signals, swamping power grids, and spewing radiation that can penetrate the atmosphere. Astronauts traveling to the Moon or other planets outside the Earth’s protective magnetic shield are particularly at risk from these storms.
In this talk, Dr. Berger will describe the origins, impacts, and our current understanding of space weather and examine what we can do to provide the forecasts needed to protect our technological infrastructure and enable safer spaceflight.
In one of the spacecraft operations centers inside LASP’s Space Technology Building, a woman’s calm voice pipes in over a speaker:
“Loss of signal, MMS-4,” the voice reports.
The room looks like a smaller version of the NASA flight control centers that show up in every space movie. The announcement is a routine cue that one of the four spacecraft that make up the Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) mission has finished its latest round of transmitting data back to Earth.
Often the first person to hear such alerts isn’t a grizzled mission control veteran, but rather a CU Boulder student. That’s because LASP employs student “command controllers” to help operate the space missions under its supervision.
LASP scientists spent the first hours of 2019 in a Maryland operations center watching NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shoot past a minor planet more than 4 billion miles from Earth—the farthest object that any spacecraft has ever explored.
That icy object, an elongated body about 19 miles tall, is called 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule, a Latin phrase that means “beyond the known world.”
CU Boulder researchers and students are playing an important role in this brush with the unknown, which took place on Jan. 1. As New Horizons zips through the outermost regions of our solar system, it will collect and analyze specks of dust using an instrument designed by students at LASP.
NASA will soon have new eyes on the Sun. Two miniature satellites designed and built at LASP are scheduled to launch later this month on Spaceflight’s SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The new missions—called the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer-2 (MinXSS-2) and the Compact Spectral Irradiance Monitor (CSIM)—will collect data on the physics of the Sun and its impact on life on Earth.
These “CubeSats,” which are smaller than a microwave oven, are set to blast into a near-Earth orbit alongside more than 60 other spacecraft. According to Spaceflight, SSO-A is the largest dedicated rideshare mission from a U.S.-based launch vehicle to date.