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Tracking solar storms in real-time

August 18, 2010 |  6:13 pm

You may not know it, but the weather in outer space can be pretty nasty.

Solar storms can knock out cellphone satellite constellations, black out power grids and even endanger high-altitude aircraft.

So getting a real-time read of the situation up there is important to a phone company like Iridium Communications of McLean, Va. Major damage to its multimillion-dollar telecommunications satellites could turn its complex network into orbiting junk.

Iridium, in partnership with Johns Hopkins University and Boeing Co., said it has created a way to monitor and forecast space weather.

The Boeing engineering team and scientists at Johns Hopkins figured out a way to turn up the rate at which Iridium’s constellation of 66 orbiting satellites sample the magnetic field they are experiencing. In doing this, the system measures the strength of magnetic fields in real-time using its commercial satellites.

Known as the Active Magnetosphere and Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment, or AMPERE the program was funded by a $4-million grant from the National Science Foundation.

“The next wave of solar storms will occur over the next three to five years, and recent solar activity is just the beginning of a long, stormy space weather ‘season,’” said Brian J. Anderson, principal investigator and the scientist who spearheads the program. “The timing for AMPERE is just right.”

-- W.J. Hennigan

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