Guest blog: The BLAsT Class and Earth's Space Weather Forecast

Posted by Nicole Kiefert
on Tuesday, September 05, 2017

By Abby Stephens and Keegan Engelking

What is the first thing you think of when someone says space weather? Is it raining storms with zero gravity with rain drops going every direction? Or is it flashing interstellar clouds with space lightning? Although it is neat to daydream about space weather being this way, the reality is very different from these depictions. Dr. Patricia Reiff, a professor from Rice University specializing in space plasma and magnetospheric physics, took us on a journey to understand space weather.

Dr. Pat Reiff chatted with us about things many astronomers ignore: Magnetic Fields! // Photo from http://space.rice.edu/reiff/reiffnil.gif​
Space weather basically happens because what happens on the Sun doesn’t stay on the Sun. Sometimes it will affect Earth’s environment. The Sun “burps” (without excusing itself) and sends plasma – energetic charged particles –  towards Earth. Fortunately, we are spared the destructive nature of the space environment by Earth’s magnetic field.

You might have heard of those beautiful lights in the northern sky that seem soooo magical. Those are called the aurora. The blast of charged material from the Sun hurtles toward us, but our magnetic field runs interference for us. The electrons are deflected around the Earth, but, just like a leaf caught in a swirling current, some of the particles get caught and thrown “backwards” into our upper atmosphere. When they hit the atoms up there, they create a glowing plasma: The aurora.

 Professor Reiff also told us about the MMS, the Magnetospheric MultiScale mission, a suite of four spaceships launched by NASA in March 2015. Designed to help us better understand how Earth’s magnetic field responds to space weather, and orbiting closer to each other than any other set of spacecraft in history, this mission brings in more data than we could imagine. Through these data we are learning amazing things about a subject most of us in the BLAsT class never even knew existed. Needless to say, Dr. Reiff was incredibly knowledgeable, and we gained a new appreciation for Earth’s magnetic field and how it plays with particles from the Sun.

A shot of one of Dr. Reiff's slides showing the predicted shape and extent of the solar corona, and a photo of the corona during totality. // Photo credit: C.R. James and Samuel I. Beard, Jr.
But that’s not all! Dr. Reiff is also an eclipse chaser! She has traveled to see seventeen total eclipses. She tried to describe how amazing it was going to be when we got to experience totality, but her words and videos and obvious excitement about it still didn’t convey a fraction of what we felt on August 21. What is cool to see in hindsight, though, is how close scientists came to predicting what it would look like. Not just the totality (darkness, obviously), but the shape of the hot, luminous outer layers of the Sun, or the corona. In Reiff’s line of work, understanding the Sun is part of the job description, and solar scientists had predicted the basic shape and extent of the corona based on their knowledge of the Sun’s activity. We were amazed to see just how close they were! 

It’s highly doubtful that we will ever think of the Sun and Earth as being two separate things anymore. And we sure won’t think people are overreacting when they’re cheering on a cosmic event. We have been thrilled to be able to hear from so many different scientists with different passions like Dr. Pat Reiff.

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