Predicting space weather to protect spacecraft from killer electrons

Dramatic weather events aren’t only a problem here on Earth — they can cause serious issues in space too.

Space weather, as it’s known, refers to the way that solar winds and variations in the Earth’s magnetosphere and atmosphere can affect conditions in our Solar System. This includes “space storms” in which high-energy particles can bombard satellites or spacecraft, causing serious damage. These particles are even referred to as “killer electrons” because they can hamper navigation, communications, and weather monitoring satellites.

Now a new study has found a way to predict the arrival of these killer electrons by one day, giving scientists and astronauts time to prepare for a space storm. This is particularly relevant for craft or satellites moving through the Van Allen belt, the doughnut-shaped radiation belts around Earth which are filled with energized protons and electrons trapped by Earth’s magnetic fields. The belt starts at 8000 miles above the surface of the Earth and extends out beyond 30,000 miles from the surface. The particles in this belt can become even faster moving and more dangerous during space solar storms.

“Society’s growing reliance on modern-technology infrastructures makes us especially vulnerable to space weather threats,” Yue Chen, a space scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “If our GPS or communications satellites fail, it could have wide-reaching, negative impacts on everything from air travel to bank transactions. So being able to accurately predict space weather has been a goal for a long time. This model is a firm step towards being able to do that.”

The predictions are based on a correlation between the movements of electrons in space and satellite measurements in low-Earth orbit. Chen and his team were able to find out which events would trigger a change in the rate of high-energy electrons and use this to build a model of space weather patterns.

“We’re very excited about the potential for future enhancements to this model,” Chen said. “The more research and refinements we do, the increased potential for us to have more reliable forecasts with longer warning time before the arrival of new killer electrons.”

The findings are published in the journal Space Weather.

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