Stormy weather ahead – in space!

Fluctuations in solar activity trigger storms which pose a threat to satellites and astronauts. An international effort led by researchers at University of Helsinki, Finland, is set to simulate the phenomena.

With the accelerating utilization of space for a multitude of different satellite types, and with increasing efforts to initiate space tourism, being able to forecast the weather in space is becoming ever more important. Storms caused by fluctuations in the Sun’s activity pose a threat to satellites and could be fatal to astronauts and space tourists.

An international effort led by Professor Minna Palmroth, Computational Space Physics, University of Helsinki, Finland, is set to simulate a particular form of storms in space known as sub-storms. The knowledge to be obtained will assist in safeguarding future space missions.

Intense storms with short intervals

Sub-storms are disturbances in the Earth’s magnetosphere causing energy to be released from the “tail” of the magnetosphere and injected into the high latitude ionosphere. The phenomenon is visible as northern lights. The term sub-storm is meant to distinguish the phenomenon from geo-magnetic storms which last several days and occur frequently during the maximum of the solar cycle. In contrast, sub-storms will normally last for just a few hours. However, they can be very intense and several can follow with relatively short intervals. These characteristics make prediction of sub-storms both important and challenging.

“We are enthusiastic, since our research relates to the unpredictable part of space weather, and researchers have tried to solve this with satellites for over 40 years,” says Professor Minna Palmroth.

“When I told about the upcoming simulations in an international meeting recently, the atmosphere suddenly turned very optimistic, since the previously unpredictable problems related to sub-storms may actually find solutions.”

Takes vast computing resources

The project involves extensive computing at one of Europe’s fastest supercomputers, Hawk, hosted at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart, Germany. A grant from PRACE (Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe) allows for no less than 60 million computing hours at Hawk.

Test simulations have been performed at computers operated by the Finnish NREN, CSC.

Published: 02/2020

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