Autonomous Antarctic Observatories Gather Space Weather Data

Apr 09, 2009
The Aurora Australis over the South Pole. Credit: Keith Vanderlinde / NSF

(PhysOrg.com) -- An international scientific consortium has developed a series of autonomous observatories in Antarctica that for the first time provide critical year-round "space weather" data from the Earth's harshest environment.

Recently, data from these observatories were used in conjunction with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's array of THEMIS satellites to reveal new information about magnetospheric substorms--the sudden release of energy that causes auroral displays.

"The Antarctic is magnetically connected to vast regions of space and the , and provides a unique window to observe dynamic processes in Earth's upper atmosphere and beyond," said Allan Weatherwax of Siena College.

Weatherwax and Marc Lessard, of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire, are co-principal investigators for the multi-institutional project known as the Polar Experiment Network for Geospace Upper-atmosphere Investigations (PENGUIn).

In addition to the University of New Hampshire and Siena College, the PENGUIn science and engineering team includes investigators from Augsburg College, the University of California-Berkeley, Dartmouth College, the University of Maryland, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the University of Michigan and Japan's Tohoku University.

The U.S. investigators were supported by the National Science Foundation, which administers the U.S. Antarctic Program.

The suite of remote observatories range in size and complexity from multi-instrumented platforms that run on solar and wind power and provide around-the-clock, real-time data to microwatt units that collect and store data for retrieval.

The observatories gather data on the interaction of solar-wind energy with Earth's lines, which arc high above our atmosphere and connect at both the North and South poles. Gathering such information in Antarctica is significantly more challenging in comparison to the more populous and relatively milder Arctic.

"In order to fully understand the phenomena we're studying, you have to know what happens with the field lines at both the poles," notes Lessard.

Earth's magnetic field extends far into space, where energy from the solar wind can be readily transferred to our "magnetosphere." A vast amount of energy follows magnetic field lines to the vicinity of the poles, driving and other phenomena at high latitudes. By measuring such things as magnetic field variations, auroral emissions and other phenomena, scientists are learning more about space weather.

The term "space weather" generally refers to conditions on the Sun, in the solar wind, and within Earth's magnetosphere and upper atmosphere that can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems and can pose risks to astronauts and people onboard aircraft in polar regions.

Besides emitting a continuous stream of plasma (solar wind), the Sun periodically releases billions of tons of matter via coronal mass ejections. These immense clouds of material, when directed toward Earth, can cause large magnetic storms in the space environment around Earth or "geospace"--the magnetosphere and the upper atmosphere.

The automated observatories have been developed over a period of years, evolving from platforms that ran on fossil fuels and required frequent maintenance to the more efficient, modular observatories that can be easily transported and installed at remote locations with extreme climates. In addition, the new-generation observatories operate by solar and wind energy alone and transfer data via satellite uplinks.

As energy from the solar wind is transferred to Earth's magnetic field it is sometimes stored for a period of time and then released to deliver large fluxes of energetic particles. The combined satellite and observatory data showed for the first time that some of these energetic particles reach very high latitudes as they collide with Earth's upper atmosphere.

Provided by NSF

Explore further: NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

University of Alberta space research to solve aurora mystery

Jan 10, 2007

On February 15, NASA will launch the largest number of scientific satellites ever sent into orbit aboard a single rocket. A handful of Alberta scientists will be at Kennedy Space Center watching and waiting. For Dr. Ian Mann ...

Study finds Earth's auroras are not mirror images

Apr 06, 2005

Thanks to observations from the ground and satellites in space, scientists know that the North and South Poles light up at night with Auroras because a "solar wind" of electrified gas continually flows outward ...

Mercury's magnetosphere fends off the solar wind

Jan 30, 2008

The planet Mercury's magnetic field appears to be strong enough to fend off the harsh solar wind from most of its surface, according to data gathered in part by a University of Michigan instrument onboard ...

Scientists solve 30-year-old aurora borealis mystery

Jul 24, 2008

UCLA space scientists and colleagues have identified the mechanism that triggers substorms in space; wreaks havoc on satellites, power grids and communications systems; and leads to the explosive release of ...

NASA Satellites Discover What Powers Northern Lights

Jul 24, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers using a fleet of five NASA satellites have discovered that explosions of magnetic energy a third of the way to the moon power substorms that cause sudden brightenings and rapid movements of the ...

Researchers identify driver for near-Earth space weather

Dec 11, 2006

New findings indicate that the aurora and other near-Earth space weather are driven by the rate at which the Earth’s and sun’s magnetic fields connect, or merge, and not by the solar wind’s electric field as was previously ...

Recommended for you

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

10 hours ago

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

Apr 18, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...

The importance of plumes

Apr 18, 2014

The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for finding black holes. It can pick out thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a thumbprint. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Hubble provided ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.