NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) now enables scientists to forecast solar radiation storms, giving future astronauts time to seek shelter and ground controllers time to safeguard satellites. The new method offers as much as one-hour advance notice when a storm is approaching.
Solar radiation storms are swarms of electrons, protons, and heavy ions accelerated to high speed by explosions on the sun. On Earth, humans are protected from these particles by Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field. "Solar radiation storms are notoriously difficult to predict. They often take us by surprise, but now we've found a way to anticipate these events," said Arik Posner, a physicist in NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
The key to the breakthrough was the Comprehensive Suprathermal and Energetic Particle Analyzer (COSTEP) instrument on board the observatory. COSTEP counts particles coming from the sun and measures their energies. Posner looked at hundreds of radiation storms recorded by COSTEP between 1996 and 2002, and was able to construct an empirical, predictive matrix that involved plugging an electron data into the matrix, and an ion forecast emerging.
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