Ilonidis cannot run the technique in real time yet, mainly because he does not have access to computers powerful enough to run a live analysis, but he is hopeful that in the next couple of years it could be used to scan the whole surface of the Sun and predict the formation of new sunspots. Such an advanced warning system could buy us a few extra days notice of an impending solar storm.
Once a solar storm reaches Earth, forecasters need to know how it will react with the particles and magnetic field surrounding the planet. A trio of CubeSats, tiny satellites weighing around 3kg (6.6lb) and made with mostly off-the-shelf components, is about to join the larger missions already orbiting the Sun like Nasa’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO).
The miniature-satellite mission, called TRIO-CINEMA, is a collaboration between the University of California Berkeley, Kyung Hee University, South Korea, and Imperial College London. Each of the CubeSats will carry two instruments: MAGIC, which will measure variations in Earth's magnetic field, and STEIN, which will monitor fast moving particles.
MAGIC is around the size of a pound coin, making it smaller and less power-hungry than sensors that do the same job in larger satellites. "Mass, volume, and power are all very limited in these tiny spacecraft," says Robert Lin of UC Berkeley, who leads the mission. Though less sensitive, having sensors on a constellation of CubeSats will give scientists a global picture of what is happening in Earth's magnetic field, something not possible with a sensor on a single spacecraft. STEIN will monitor both charged and neutral particles as they interact with Earth's magnetic field and radiation belts, enabling scientists to create maps and movies charting the particles' behaviour.
The first CINEMA CubeSat will launch in summer 2012, with the other two later on in the year. To keep costs down the CubeSats will hitch a ride on other missions to reach their orbit 600km above Earth. Data from TRIO-CINEMA will help scientists understand the behaviour of the near Earth environment and feed into space weather forecasting models, says Lin.
At the moment, space weather alerts and reports are done on a piecemeal basis. The Goddard Space Flight Center forecasters provide space weather information to all Nasa robotic missions. A new European system called SPACECAST provides radiation forecasts to help satellite operators protect their equipment. And NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center provides alerts and forecasts to power grid operators, commercial airlines, radio operators and other companies who need them, as well as government agencies.
But the Space Weather Prediction Center relies on the strength of data available, and right now there are only a few dedicated operational space weather-monitoring systems around the world. Baker thinks the entire suite of monitoring and alert systems could be better integrated to provide a global effort to protect the Earth from space weather. “Let’s, as a nation, but also as a world, since space weather knows no boundaries or borders, really pool our resources, our assets and put together a much more dedicated, operational worldwide space weather system,” he says. A first step would be an international agreement to share all data, then agreements on observing responsibilities of each nation. “Every nation could do its share and everyone would benefit,” he says.
A global system could offer tailored forecasts and alerts, as not every industry or company has the same concerns about various types of space weather. For example, military systems are robust and can operate through almost every type of disturbance and would not benefit from a forecast, says Baker. But satellite operators and power companies could take some mitigating steps to reduce the likelihood that their spacecraft might fail or their grids might shut down. “They could be prepared to divert power from one sector to another. They could spin-up more back-up capabilities and really weather the storm, especially if they knew exactly where the most powerful electromagnetically induced currents were,” he says.