Keeping an eye on the weather is a daily routine for many people. A check of the temperature, the chance of precipitation and what’s happening 90 miles to the south-southwest gives an indication of what the day will bring.
However, Baylor professor Trey Cade, PhD, keeps his eye on weather conditions roughly 90 million miles away. Cade is director of the Baylor Institute for Air Science, and his research focuses on space weather.
“Space weather is all about sun-Earth interaction,” Cade says. “There are a lot of particles, gas clouds, plasma, energy that interact with the Earth and the Earth’s magnetic field—like solar flares, very explosive releases of energy on the sun that can cause problems for us on Earth.”
Problems include high-radiation dosages and magnetic storms, disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field that can cause widespread power outages, disrupt communication systems, GPS navigation and damage or disable satellites. Astronauts and airline passengers are susceptible to high-radiation dosages. Cade says a National Academy of Sciences study shows that an extreme space-weather event could have as much a $2 trillion impact on the United States economy.
“Some of the science is relatively new,” Cade says. “It’s important for us to be able to study how space weather works with an eye toward being able to accurately forecast these events and warn appropriate agencies, for example, the power companies.”
Most immediate effects of space weather events center around modern technology,
as today’s consumers with cell phones
know fairly well, but such space-weather ramifications were recorded as early as the Industrial Revolution.
“As soon as telegraph systems started being developed and used for practical applications worldwide, they started getting disrupted by space weather events,” Cade says.
The solar storm of 1859, also known as the Carrington Event, caused telegraph systems worldwide to quit working. More recently, a March 1989 geomagnetic storm caused power outages across Quebec. A series of storms in October 2003 caused numerous satellite problems and radiation concerns for airline passengers and astronauts.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, space weather events led to what Cade describes as more psychological impacts. Magnetic storms can cause the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights) to move south of the polar regions.
“It was very common for people to think it was a sign from God that the world was about to end or an omen of an impending war or disaster,” Cade says. “With the 1859 storm, there is a newspaper account of the Aurora being seen in Galveston and Jamaica.”
From his Space Weather Research Lab in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC), Cade monitors the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field by way of satellite-mounted telescopes and ground-based instruments.
Cade teaches a space weather class in which he assumes no background knowledge, and non-science majors are welcome. Some of Cade’s undergraduate students have assisted with his research, and some have presented research findings at international scientific conferences.
One such student is senior Courtney Turner, an aviation science major from Granbury, Texas. A first-generation college student, Turner is a commercial pilot who plans to give flight lessons professionally after graduation.
“We want to know if there is a better way to measure magnetic storms because we’ve basically used the same way of measuring them for the past 70 years,” Turner says. “Space weather is a mystery in a lot of ways. We know so much about it, but there is so much more we could know.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has established five-level space weather scales, much like the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, for geomagnetic storms (G1-G5), solar radiation storms (S1-S5) and radio blackouts (R1-R5).
About four G5 storms occur per 11-year solar cycle, while fewer than one S5 and R5 occur in the same time span. Weaker storms and blackouts occur much more frequently with level-one events being minutely disruptive. Additional information on the scales can be found at swpc.noaa.gov/NOAAscales.
“Power companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] take action based on the category,” Cade says. “There are a lot of questions about how those categorizations are done. Are those really accurate? Some of the research we’re doing is focused on that question.”
Taylor Robinette is a senior astronomy and aviation science major originally from Amarillo, Texas. She hopes to pursue research professionally after graduation in some space-related field.
“It’s been fascinating,” says Robinette, who has worked in Cade’s lab for more than a year. “My job specifically is to calculate the amount of energy produced by things like solar winds. It’s given me a taste of what research as a career would be like, and it’s definitely something I’d like to keep doing.”
Research career opportunities abound for Robinette and other students, including universities, government agencies and companies, such as SpaceX, which has test facilities within 25 miles of Baylor’s campus.
In February, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon Heavy rocket that featured the reusable launch system development program in which rocket boosters returned to Earth and safely landed. Six months earlier, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said he believes a manned mission to Mars will be possible by 2024.
“Sending people to Mars, getting there safely on the ground and coming back, space weather will be a huge concern,” Cade says. “You have to worry about long-term exposure to radiation in deep space. And Mars doesn’t have a strong magnetic field like Earth where we’re largely protected on the surface from a lot of this radiation.”