While weather likely has been a common topic of conversation since
ancient humans first learned to articulate their thoughts millennia
ago, one of the hottest topics today among scientists is space

The violence of space weather, changes in the web of magnetic fields
and energetic particles that originate from the sun and disrupt the
near-Earth environment, is well documented, said University of
Colorado at Boulder scientist Daniel Baker. Events range from
coronal mass ejections shooting hundreds of thousands of miles into
space to million-mile-per-hour winds blowing charged particles toward
Earth, at times disabling satellites and major power grids.

Technological challenges to damaging space weather events are growing
as a “cyberelectric” cocoon weaves more tightly around Earth. But
the ability of researchers to predict such events and mitigate
negative effects to spacecraft, ground-based power facilities and air
and space travelers is becoming a more attainable goal, Baker said.

“The region of space between the sun and Earth is a very hostile
environment, and we must be vigilant,” he said. “With new
observations, numerical simulations and predictive models, scientists
now are making progress toward dealing with space weather.”

Baker authored a perspective article in the August 30 issue of the
prestigious weekly journal, Science, titled “How to Cope with Space

“We are seeing our satellite and communication systems becoming more
susceptible to damage by space weather, and the risk is growing,”
said Baker, director of CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and
Space Physics. But he noted the first major line of defense by
humans against severe solar storms and their consequences — robust
satellites and systems — has largely been met.

“A new NASA initiative, “Living With a Star,” aims to observe
systematically the solar disturbances and follow these space weather
drivers to their ultimate dissipation in Earth’s atmosphere,” Baker
wrote in Science.

The space weather issue also resulted in the 2002 formation of a $20
million, multi-institutional center to create computer models of
potentially damaging space weather events and to devise new methods
of protection, he said. Known as the Center for Integrated Space
Weather Modeling, the center is led by Boston University and involves
seven other universities, including CU-Boulder.

The new consortium also involves five other participating
institutions, including Boulder’s National Center for Atmospheric
Research, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s
Space Environment Center in Boulder, the Space Science Institute in
Boulder and Lockheed Martin Corp. of Denver.

The challenges faced by consortium scientists and other researchers
are formidable, Baker said. “During a coronal mass ejection, clouds
of charged gases weighing 10 billion tons or more may spew toward
Earth at speeds of one million to two million miles per hour.”

High-energy electrons produced in Earth’s magnetosphere by the cloud
can penetrate the region of space containing orbiting spacecraft,
embedding themselves in insulators and building up electrical charges
similar to static electricity that result in miniature bolts of
lightning shorting out electrical systems, he said. Aerospace
engineers also are working on developing new materials — including
glass composites — to prevent the build-up of electrical charges on
the exterior and interior of satellites.

“We don’t like to see these electrical charges build up inside or on
the surface of spacecraft, because it often results in damage,” said
Baker. In 1997, a $200 million AT&T communications satellite was
destroyed during a solar storm.

Such charged-particle events also affect Earth’s surface. In 1989 a
major storm caused powerful electrical currents in a large power grid
in the Hydro Quebec power system, shutting down the system for eight
hours as transformers burned out and causing a domino effect further
along the grid. The Quebec incident very nearly spread to grids in
the northeast United States, but was halted by the disconnection of
several grids by engineers, he said.

“By developing more specific space weather forecasts and
characterizing the potential hazards to spacecraft and communications
systems, the better our societies will be able to cope,” said Baker.
“Ideally, we would like to be able to make more accurate forecasts of
impending space weather events expected to impact Earth with lead
times of days or weeks rather than hours.”