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1/30/2012
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NASA Enhances Solar Storm Forecasting

Space agency uses technology to generate up to 100 computerized forecasts to better predict the path and effect of solar storms.

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NASA is applying existing technology called "ensemble forecasting" that's been used to predict hurricanes in its observations of solar weather to better predict the path and effect of solar storms.

The use of the computational predictive technique couldn't come as a better time, as the sun is entering its solar maximum, or period of greatest activity, which will spur an increase in space weather, according to the agency.

Researchers at the Space Weather Laboratory of Goddard Space Flight Research Center have begun to implement ensemble forecasting--which allows them to produce as many as 100 computerized forecasts at once--with full implementation in three years' time, according to NASA.

Support from NASA's Space Technology Program Game Changing Program is allowing for the use of the technology, which meteorologists already use to track the potential path or impact of hurricanes and other forms of severe weather.

Ensemble forecasting uses computer modeling to calculate multiple possible space weather conditions to simultaneously produce forecasts that researchers can analyze. From this analysis they can create alerts for solar storms that could affect astronauts or NASA spacecraft, according to the agency.

These alerts already are available, but not with the same speed or reliability as ensemble forecasting will provide, Michael Hesse, chief of Goddard's Space Weather Laboratory and director of the Center's Heliophysics science division, said in a press statement.

"Ensemble forecasting will provide a distribution of arrival times, which will improve the reliability of forecasts," he said. "This is important. Society is relying more so than ever on space. Communications, navigation, electrical-power generation, all are susceptible to space weather."

Currently, Goddard is running only one model for solar storms that calculates one set of parameters--derived from data gathered by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, and the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, among other sources.

Ensemble forecasting will allow researchers to consider multiple parameters in their forecasts to give scientists better insight on how a solar storm might behave over time, according to NASA.

"There will be nothing like this in the world" to predict space weather once Goddard researchers complete its implementation of ensemble forecasting, Hesse added.

Indeed, solar flare and storm activity has increased in recent months as the sun begins to wake up from years of relative inactivity, according to NASA. To prepare for it, the agency has been working for some time to improve its forecasting of solar weather.

The sun emitted two significant corona mass ejections (CMEs)--or billion-ton clouds of solar plasma launched by sun explosions--in the last six months, one on Aug. 4 and one in mid January, the latter of which caused some airlines to divert flights. And earlier this week, the most powerful solar flare so far this year erupted from the same region that caused last week's CME.

As the sun enters its peak of activity, CMEs become more numerous and can affect planets or spacecrafts in their path, as well as disrupt satellite-based communications or power grids on earth.

InformationWeek's 2012 Government IT Innovators program will feature the most innovative government IT organizations in the 2012 InformationWeek 500 issue and on InformationWeek.com. Does your organization have what it takes? The nomination period for 2012 Government IT Innovators closes April 27.

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