Predicting space weather in real time

Johns Hopkins, Boeing, and Iridium team up on a system called AMPERE that's meant to provide better monitoring of solar activity that could disrupt electronics on Earth.

Don Reisinger
Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
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AMPERE space weather program
The AMPERE program is a first step toward developing a system that enables 24-hour tracking of space weather. PRNewsFoto/Iridium

Getting more accurate forecasts about space weather may not help you decide whether to water your garden, but it could soon clue you in better to when events in the solar system may be putting a damper on your electronic activities.

Johns Hopkins University, Boeing, and Iridium Communications announced on Wednesday that they have launched a new space-based service that they say will help scientists monitor magnetic storms around Earth.

Dubbed the Active Magnetosphere and Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment (AMPERE), the system utilizes commercial satellites orbiting Earth to take magnetic-field measurements in real time. The result is output that gets scientists one step closer to accurate, year-round tracking of space weather and the effects it can have on the planet, including disruptions to telecommunications service and the electrical power grid.

"Solar storms can disrupt satellite service and damage telecommunications networks, cause power grid blackouts and even endanger high-altitude aircraft," Brian J. Anderson, principal investigator at Johns Hopkins, said in a statement. "The next wave of solar storms will occur over the next three to five years and recent solar activity is just the beginning of a long, stormy space weather season."

The sun
Solar storms are likely to increase in the coming months. NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

The announcement of AMPERE's launch is a timely one. The sun is swinging into an extended period of greater activity, as witnessed by the recent spate of coronal mass ejections that spit plasma directly at Earth. Although event didn't seem to cause any measurable problems, it did offer up a brilliant light display over the northern sky.

"The electric currents linking Earth's uppermost atmosphere with space--those same currents that generate the aurora borealis--also produce magnetic signatures that can only be sensed from space," said Anderson. "This achievement by the AMPERE team is a quantum advance in science that allows the first continuous (24/7) global observation of space weather."

The AMPERE program, funded by a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory, could have a profound impact on forecasting space weather. The system takes magnetic measurements with up to 100 times greater sampling density than previously possible, backers say. Sample data is taken from Iridium's constellation of 66 low-earth-orbit communications satellites every two to 20 seconds, compared with once every one to three minutes previously. It is then sent to Boeing, which organizes and distributes the collected data to Johns Hopkins' APL within minutes of the original recording. Previously, the data wasn't available until a day later.

For now, the AMPERE system provides raw data. But scientists will be building upon the system and developing tools for monitoring and predicting severe geomagnetic storms. The first batch of space weather products, AMPERE backers say, is due in the fourth quarter.