Space weather that comes from the sun to the earth

Weekly astronomy column from Ken Tapping this week's topic is space weather


Imagine being in some remote city, going to the nearest ATM for some cash, and finding it doesn’t recognize you. How about experiencing a complete collapse of communications and electrical power? Put yourself in the place of a pipeline manager, worrying about the slow corrosion of the thousands of kilometres of pipeline in your care due to fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. It costs a lot to send out the inspectors. How often should you send them out? The consequences of not sending them often enough could be extremely serious. How do you deal with disruption of communications and other satellites due to damage by high-energy particles, usually protons from the Sun? These are only a sample of the issues falling under the broad topic of “Space Weather” and the effects of the Sun’s behaviour on the space environment, the Earth’s magnetic field and our atmosphere.

Another consideration is that out of all the countries in the world, Canada is the one most vulnerable to bad space weather. First of all, we are close to the Northern Magnetic Pole, which is currently located in Northern Canada. Guided by the magnetic field, the high-energy particles present in some space weather events are funnelled down towards the magnetic pole. Moreover, the magnetic consequences of solar activity are strongest at Canadian latitudes. Secondly, Canada is a big country, spanning a wide range of longitudes. Our necessarily very long pipelines and power lines are more sensitive to solar-induced magnetic activity. On top of all that we are very dependent upon long-distance radio communications. In Canada we have to take space weather very seriously.

We are faced with three tasks. Firstly, to keep a sharp eye on the Sun, and to identify events that are going to cause us problems with as long a lead-time as possible. Secondly, we need to predict when those problems are going to hit us. Finally, we need to get better at forecasting bad space weather, for as long in advance as possible.

Although we do share our ideas and information with other countries, and in return have access to their data, the vulnerability of Canada to bad space weather has led to a need to have a national system covering all those tasks, so that data from other countries, while very good to have, is not absolutely essential to our space weather security.

Building this end-to-end system for space weather situational awareness is a collaborative effort between three Canadian Government agencies: the Canadian Space Agency, Natural Resources Canada and our National Research Council. Under this collaborative agreement we are upgrading existing solar instruments and building a Next Generation Solar Flux Monitor to provide an even better stethoscope on the Sun. The other main efforts are to better integrate the data from a nationwide network of ground-based instruments and to provide a Canadian data and forecasting centre. Understanding and dealing with space weather will continue to be an international effort. However, we also need a national system that can function if the international connections fail, due perhaps to bad space weather.

Jupiter rises about 5 p.m. Mars comes up around midnight. The Moon will be full on the 10th.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, and is based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.