Much like tornado watchers look to the skies for clues that a twister is forming, NASA and university scientists are watching the Sun in an effort to better predict space weather – blasts of particles from the Sun that impact the magnetosphere, the magnetic bubble around the Earth.

Based at the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) in Huntsville, Ala., this research unites scientists from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Like severe weather on Earth, severe space weather can be costly. When massive solar explosions, known as coronal mass ejections, blast through the Sun’s outer atmosphere and plow toward Earth at speeds of thousands of miles per second, the resulting effects can be harmful to communication satellites and astronauts outside the Earth’s magnetosphere. On the ground, the magnetic storm wrought by these solar particles can knock out electric power.

A study by scientists at the National Space Science and Technology Center, published in the April 20 issue of the “The Astrophysical Journal,” is offering new insight on these solar storms and how to better predict them.

One of the authors, Dr. David Falconer, a research associate from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, compares potential solar-storm prediction techniques to methods used for predicting thunderstorms and tornadoes on Earth.

“When we look up at clouds, we can identify those with the potential to bring severe weather,” he explains. “If the sky is clear, or filled with hazy Cirrus clouds, there is a low likelihood of severe weather. On the other hand, we can use special equipment to observe the surface of the Sun, enabling us to glean clues on what severe space weather might be forming.”

Fortunately, people on Earth aren’t without protection from space weather. “Our planet’s magnetosphere protects us from the worst of a solar storm’s fury,” says NSSTC solar scientist Dr. Ron Moore of the Marshall Center.

Filled by charged particles trapped in Earth’s magnetic field…

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