Meanwhile, spacecraft like the Solar Dynamics Observatory launched in 2010 and orbiting instruments like NASA’s Sabre (Sounding of the Atmosphere Using Broadband Emission Radiometry) sensor have begun to unravel at least some of the sun’s mysteries by detecting and recording tremendous flares that drive solar weather.
While better space weather forecasting will help, Baker said the best engineering approach is to find ways to harden vulnerable space systems and terrestrial networks. “The best thing would be to make yourself immune” to the effects of space weather, he added. “We’ve got to get on with it.”
Hence, looking for ways to harden future satellite electronics along with the existing power grids and other critical infrastructure will be the central focus of preparedness efforts as the solar activity grows over the next 18 months.
Another approach involves developing self-repairing computers based on FPGA designs that can tolerate higher doses of space radiation, detect faults and remain in operation during heavy space weather. These “blocking technologies” could also be used to protect power grids and other susceptible networks on Earth. The purpose of these hardened components is to reduce the chances of a single-event failure that could shut down a navigation satellite or bring down part of the power grid.
While no one knows for sure, space weather forecasters are clearly worried about the extent of the next solar maximum. Hence, the growing emphasis on boosting space weather forecasting. The pair of Radiation Belt Storm probes launched by NASA on Aug. 30 represents the next big step in understanding and preparing for inclement space weather.
The twin satellites mark the first time NASA has launched a mission specifically to investigate the Earth’s Van Allen Radiation Belt, a layered ring of charged particles, or plasma, held in place by the Earth’s magnetic field.
The probes will make detailed measurements of the radiation belts and how solar flares cause them to change and affect the upper portions of the Earth’s atmosphere. "The information collected from these probes will benefit the public by allowing us to better protect our satellites and understand how space weather affects communications and technology on Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science missions.
Just the same, better keep an umbrella handy when the solar max arrives as early as next year.