The Sun provides light and warmth that fuel life on Earth, but it can also generate disruptive space weather. This space weather is caused by solar wind, coronal mass ejections, and other solar phenomena that can influence conditions on or near Earth, with potentially harmful effects for spacecraft, communications systems, electrical power grids, and other infrastructure.
The U.S. federal government has funded research on the dangers of space weather for decades. A new paper from Caldwell et al. reviews this history and calls for continued investment in related research to prepare for the ongoing hazards posed by space weather.
Federal involvement in space weather research began between World Wars I and II, when the government first became concerned that space weather might interfere with high-frequency radio transmissions. Such research was useful for both military and civilian applications—commercial aviation also required radio communications.
Key results of the government’s early involvement in space weather research included the establishment of the Interservice Radio Propagation Laboratory in 1942 (during World War II), which relied on a network of 44 global observation stations to collect ionospheric data that could be used to better understand and predict solar disturbances to radio communications.
A decade later, in 1952, the U.S. government opened the Sacramento Peak Observatory in New Mexico to advance understanding of solar flares and other solar physics. The Cold War and the Space Race motivated further government-funded research to study the potentially harmful effects of space weather on both manned and unmanned spacecraft.
Two recent events illustrate the continued threat to civilians posed by space weather. In March of 1989, a powerful solar storm triggered a 12-hour blackout throughout the entire province of Québec, Canada. During the Halloween Storms of 2003, 17 large solar flares caused numerous disruptions worldwide, including a major blackout in Sweden. They also led to high levels of atmospheric radiation that required flights to be rerouted to avoid unsafe exposure for passengers.
In light of such events, the authors conclude, the U.S. federal government still has a critical role to play in observing and forecasting space weather phenomena. Development of new technologies and improved prediction methods will enable the country to better prepare for space weather events while maintaining security and well-being. (Space Weather, https://doi.org/10.1002/2017SW001626, 2017)
—Sarah Stanley, Freelance Writer