14 January 2019

Researchers improve tools for predicting weather in space

A team of researchers has helped to improve space weather forecasts so that todays technological infrastructure can be better protected from unexpected interruptions.

The sun

Many technologies and industries – from radio, TV, mobile phone technologies, to GPS and other navigation services and power transmission systems, to service industries such as banking – rely on satellites and other essential space and terrestrial infrastructure.

But weather events in space, originating on the Sun and propagating towards our home planet, can cause problems that stop systems that the global economy relies on from working properly.

The PROGRESS project, co-ordinated by Professor Robertus von Fay-Siebenbürgen in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, was set up as a European/US collaboration to develop Europe-wide tools to forecast solar wind conditions close to the Earth and their effects within the magnetosphere.

It brought together researchers from the School of Mathematics and Statistics and the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering at the University of Sheffield, alongside collaborators from Warwick, Finland, Germany, the USA, Ukraine, France, Sweden and Germany.

Professor von Fay-Siebenbürgen, who is the deputy head of the University of Sheffield's Solar Physics and Space Plasma Research Centre, said: "We have exploited our combined expertise to create a comprehensive set of forecasting tools, combining data-based modelling techniques with improvements to state of the art physics-based models."

The team created created a numerical magnetohydrodynamics-based model by coupling two individual models to enable an advanced forecast of solar wind parameters. "The first, AWSoM, analyses the magnetic field at the solar surface, using it to simulate the solar atmosphere out to 25 solar radii. From this point outwards, the second model, SWIFT, propagates these solar winds out to 1.5 million kilometres upstream of the Earth," Professor von Fay-Siebenbürgen explained.

He added: "The new models developed by the consortium are based on our improved understanding of the dynamics of the radiation belts. The results are important for the scientific community as they give novel insight into physical processes of plasmas in the near-Earth environment."

When these space weather events arrive at the Earth they can result in increased numbers of 'killer electrons' capable of damaging satellites. "Our new models for the evolution of fluxes of electrons at geostationary orbit, the location of large numbers of satellites, are a significant improvement on those that went before," explained Professor Michael Balikhin from the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, who also played a key role in the project with colleagues Dr Simon Walker, Dr Richard Boynton and Dr Hua-Liang Wei.

A world top-100 university

We're a world top-100 university renowned for the excellence, impact and distinctiveness of our research-led learning and teaching.