Cool Jobs: Predicting weather in space

Thursday - 8/12/2010, 5:00pm EDT

Bill Murtagh, program coordinator, NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center

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This week, Federal News Radio brings you the Best of the DorobekInsider. This interview originally aired on July 13, 2010.

You know the sun is affecting your day when it's particularly hot outside, but did you know that it could mess with your car's GPS system, or even cause blackouts?

In this installment of our Cool Jobs in Government series, we learn all about an entire group of people working at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center who watch the sun every waking minute to try and mitigate the more dangerous effects of the sun.

Bill Murtagh is program coordinator at the center and explains that the study of space weather has become more popular during the past decade because of technological advances like GPS.

He explains what, exactly, they do.

"We monitor the Sun, 24 hours a day, every day of the year, watching for the development of sunspots. Generally, in the vicinity of those sunspots, we'll see solar flares, solar eruptions and the emissions from those eruptions will impact our technology here on Earth. . . . The impact can be on the satellite system itself, or it can interfere with the radio signal from the satellites to ground receivers."

He adds that it can also interfere with technology such as the power grid. When space storms occur, geomagnetic currents are created and sometimes infiltrate the grid, damaging transformers, or even creating blackouts.

Murtagh and his team use tons of technology themselves to keep an eye on the Sun, including several satellites equipped with special sensors.

"We're actually watching images of the Sun to see what's happening out there, but when X-Rays and other types of emissions come from the Sun, our sensors on board these satellites in space will detect them, and then we have a good sense of what's about to impact the Earth and our technologies here."

They don't just watch, though. They also have the job of predicting when certain eruptions will occur, and how they will affect the Earth.

Murtagh says, just like your local weatherman, sometimes they can be extremely accurate, and sometimes that's not so easy.

"There's several different types of space weather. . . . For the flares themselves -- actual flare eruptions on the Sun -- will typically not occur unless we see big complex magnetic sunspot structures on the face of the Sun. So, for instance, when we're not seeing any sunspots, we can put out a very high plausibility that nothing's going to happen today, and we're accurate most of the time. Then, sometimes we see very large, complex sunspot groups, and we say there's a high probability that something's about to happen, and it often does. So, we're fairly good in some senses, but there's certainly still a lot of challenges we face in our ability to make accurate forecasts."

He says one of the biggest problems with prediction has to do with the fact that there's no real way to tell when a flare is going to erupt. Murtagh says they're working on developing tools to help them with this, but right now it's often a game of wait-and-see.

"We're very much in our infancy in this area, but there's been some tremendous developments in the last decade or so in modeling the Sun and the space environment. In fact, in the next year, we will be transitioning our first physics-based model into our operations center, much like some of the models you would see in the field of meteorology. We'll have a model that allows us to understand how an eruption on the Sun will provocate and make that 93 million mile transit from Sun to Earth. It'll help us with our timing of when it's going to hit the Earth and how hard it may impact the Earth's magnetic field and ionosphere."

Email the author of this post at dramienski@federalnewsradio.com

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