UAF scientist to aid NASA’s space weather forecasting


An elongated coronal hole rotated across the face of the sun in January 2017, streaming solar wind toward Earth. Image by Solar Dynamics Observatory, NASA.

Fairbanks, Alaska (UAF) – A University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist will have a role in a new NASA center that aims to greatly improve space weather forecasting and preparedness for adverse events.

NASA in August announced the creation of four Space Weather Centers for Excellence. NASA’s goal is to have improved space weather forecasting models and products ready for operation within five years.

Research assistant professor Doğacan Öztürk of the UAF Geophysical Institute is a co-investigator at the new Space Weather Operational Readiness Development center. SWORD is one of the four new space weather centers.

The SWORD center aims to create space weather forecasts more precise and frequent than presently occurs.

Improved forecasting will benefit operators of satellites, communications and navigation systems, and power grids, all of which can be damaged or disrupted by space weather.

“We have a good sense of how things work on a large scale, but we are having problems when we start looking at the smaller scales,” Öztürk said.

“For example, it might be snowing in downtown Fairbanks but not in the nearby hills. Those small differences are important for operational purposes,” she said. “What we want to be able to do in near-Earth space is similar. We want to have a more refined-resolution forecast for space weather.”

The SWORD center will be housed at the University of Colorado Boulder and led by Thomas Berger, director of the university’s Space Weather Technology, Research and Education Center. The SWORD center derived from that group.

The SWORD center will conduct research to improve forecasts and nowcasts of the orbital space environment, particularly in the critical low-Earth orbit domain that is becoming increasingly congested with satellites and debris. SWORD research will also investigate the space between Earth and the moon generally outside the protective shell of Earth’s magnetic field, to aid NASA’s Artemis program in its lunar exploration plans. 

“This is about expanding our numerical modeling capabilities for forecasting and the mitigation of space weather and space-related risks in the near-Earth environment,” Öztürk said

The research will lead to better modeling of the interaction between Earth’s protective magnetosphere, which shields the planet from much of the sun’s radiation, and an area known as the ionosphere-thermosphere-mesosphere region. That area begins at about 31 miles above Earth’s surface and reaches to the top of the thermosphere, at the edge of space, at about 300 to 600 miles.

The thermosphere’s depth varies because the solar wind can heat it, causing it to expand. The solar wind is the continual particle stream that speeds from the sun at more than 1 million miles per hour and interacts with Earth’s magnetosphere.

The upper atmosphere thickens as its temperature increases, creating drag on the satellites and potentially causing them to fall from orbit. Such an event occurred in February 2022 when the effects of a solar storm knocked 40 Starlink satellites from orbit.

“The increased density and temperature caused by the solar input can create an environment that is not what these satellites were designed to operate in,” Öztürk said. 

Öztürk and a postdoctoral researcher will study the ways energy dissipates in the magnetosphere, which can cause wave-like density variations in the upper atmosphere’s plasma. Plasma is a hot gas formed of electrically charged particles.

The center’s work will be available to NOAA and NASA through the cloud-based system of Amazon Web Services. The research may also benefit the U.S. Space Force and civilian space traffic managers as they attempt to track the ever-growing number of satellites and debris objects in orbit.  

In addition to Öztürk, Colorado University Boulder’s SWORD center includes researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research High Altitude Observatory, University of Michigan, University of Iowa and the NASA Langley Research Center. 

Berger, of the University of Colorado Boulder, noted that forecasting space weather isn’t as easy as forecasting traditional weather in the lower atmosphere.

“The space weather system is more complex,” he said. “You’ve got magnetic fields. You’ve got electric currents and plasmas. The solar radiation is changing all the time in ways that really affect the atmosphere, so you need more complex models and new data assimilation mechanisms to get a good forecast.”

This illustration shows the interaction between the sun and Earth. NASA illustration.