Solar wind significantly alters Earth’s magnetic field, which can affect Earth’s communication technologies.
Richard Bonde, a physics graduate student at UT Arlington, studies space weather and its effects on Earth. Space weather refers to atmospheric conditions on and generated by the sun and can determine the performance of space and Earth based technological systems.
According to Bonde, the Earth’s magnetic field blocks out harmful particles emitted by the sun.
“The sun emits particles called solar wind, and it’s always streaming out of the sun at roughly a million miles per hour,” Bonde said. “The reason we get space weather is that the solar wind is disturbed and carries parts of its own magnetic field to interact with [and shape] Earth’s magnetic field,” Bonde said.
This interaction is called the interplanetary magnetic field.
The intensity of solar wind wavers depending on the year and is determined by the sun’s changing seasons, which Bonde said don’t match Earth’s.
The sun undergoes an 11-year cycle, which greatly affects space weather. During a period called ‘solar maximum,’ the sun emits intense solar flares and coronal mass ejections. Solar flares are bursts of energy from the sun and coronal mass ejections are an eruption of the plasma on the sun’s surface. The sun experienced its most recent solar maximum in 2015.
”The [coronal mass ejections] that are big will create a shockwave that accelerate the solar winds towards the Earth and its space weather,” Bonde said.
GPS and radio signals must avoid or overcome the changes in space weather in order to precisely reach the Earth.
“The [solar] flares are bursts of energy that can affect radio communication and accelerate harmful particles [from the sun],” Bonde said.
Bonde said that the GPS signals must travel through the ionosphere, a region of the Earth’s atmosphere that forms a plasma due to electrons and ions. When the sun’s radiation comes into contact with the ionosphere, the protons and electrons from the signal split apart, weakening the GPS signal.
According to Bonde, other GPS signal disturbances can occur when the particles from the signals of GPS satellites in space become trapped in the Earth’s radiation belts. If the signals are not properly protected, their particles can get embedded in radiation belts, resulting in weaker signals.
A significant change in solar weather can also affect Earth’s infrastructure, according to Bonde.
“Geomagnetically induced currents, a really strong storm that compresses our magnetosphere, can induce currents in power lines here on Earth, blowing out transformers,” Bonde said.
Yue Deng, UT-Arlington physics professor, is currently developing a computer simulator to monitor and predict changes in space weather. Bonde uses the simulator for his own research. Deng said in the future she hopes the computer simulator can serve as a valuable tool for space weather research.
“My biggest goal for the computer simulator is to build a next generation simulation capability...which will be very beneficial for space weather forecast,” Deng said.