New system predicts solar storms - but ESA says satellites are safe

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Researchers have developed a new method of predicting solar storms that they say could help to avoid power and communications blackouts.

The next major solar storms are expected in 2012 and 2013 as part of the sun’s 11-year weather cycle. A 2008 US National Academy of Sciences report estimated that modern reliance on electronics and satellite communications means a major storm could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

Up to now, solar weather prediction has been carried out manually, with experts looking at 2D satellite images of the sun and assessing the likelihood of future activity. But a team from the University of Bradford’s Centre for Visual Computing has now created the first online automated prediction system, using 3D images generated from the joint NASA/ESA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory satellite (SOHO).

It's already being put into use by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).The Automated Solar Activity Prediction system (ASAP) identifies and classifies sun spots and then feeds this information through a model which can predict the likelihood of solar flares. The system is able to accurately predict a solar flare six hours in advance, says the team.

"By creating an automated system that can work in real time, we open up the possibility for much faster prediction and – with sufficient data – prediction of a wider range of activity," says reader in visual computing Dr Rami Qahwaji.

"With NASA’s new Solar Dynamic Observatory satellite which came into operation in May, we have the chance to see the sun’s activity in much greater detail which will further improve our prediction capabilities.”

The system can be seen at work here.

However, according to the European Space Agency, there's little chance that satellites will actually be fried by solar storms. The agency is shortly to launch its first four operational Galileo satellites.

"These Galileo In-Orbit Validation (IOV) satellites will indeed go up during a period of enhanced solar activity," says Bertram Arbesser-Rastburg, head of ESA's Electromagnetics and Space Environment division.

"But the solar max is hardly a surprise event. Astronomers counting sunspots have tracked the solar cycle for more than 250 years. All the indications are this solar max will not be especially energetic – the last solar minimum has been unusually long and deep. So it's reassuring the Galileo satellites won't be faced with the worst of the worst on day one."

The satellites are built with radiation-hardened components and shielding, with redundancy in key subsystems. Error detection and correction routines guard against charged particles randomly 'flipping' bits of computer memory.

"They have indeed been built to endure the worst of the worst: even then, they would not fail," says Arbesser-Rastburg.