by Brooks Hays
Newcastle, England (UPI) Jul 30, 2015
Researchers in England are looking ahead to a world where solar and space weather forecasting is nearly as important as weather patterns and predictions on Earth's surface.
Better predicting how the sun's electromagnetic behavior influences space weather will become more important, scientists say, as activities like space tourism, asteroid mining and manned space travel become more common.
In the United States, scientists at the Space Weather Prediction Center, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, do their best to forecast solar winds and storms. NASA and the International Space Station rely heavily on these reports to keep their instruments and astronauts safe from dangerous radiation.
But scientists at Northumbria University suggest more predictive, less reactive solar forecasting is necessary for the future of safe space travel. Researchers there recently used a powerful telescope to observe the outer layer of the sun's surface to better understand how solar winds there influence space weather.
The team, led by Northumbria research fellow Richard Morton, was able to observe and describe the behavior of a type of magnetic wave known as Alfven waves. As detailed in a new study published in Nature, researchers found the waves to run in both directions along the sun's magnetic field. When they collide, their energy can be transferred to accelerating solar winds.
Scientists had previously predicted these waves, but never before observed them directly.
"The solar wind is unlike anything experienced on Earth," Morton said in a press release. "It is an extremely fast moving stream of million-degree gas that carries away up to a billion kilograms of the Sun's atmosphere per second."
"Exactly what allows the winds to reach such speeds and provides the force to remove such large amount of solar material has puzzled scientists for a while now," Morton added. "We hope that our observations will help with the prediction and monitoring of the Sun's weather. Then, maybe one day, people will tune in to the morning's space weather report to see whether they should take that trip to Mars."
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