Which way does the solar wind blow?

Using supercomputers, researchers develop new software for improved space weather prediction


Research News


The surface of the sun churns with energy and frequently ejects masses of highly-magnetized plasma towards Earth. Sometimes these ejections are strong enough to crash through the magnetosphere — the natural magnetic shield that protects the Earth — damaging satellites or electrical grids. Such space weather events can be catastrophic.

Astronomers have studied the sun’s activity for centuries with greater and greater understanding. Today, computers are central to the quest to understand the sun’s behavior and its role in space weather events.

The bipartisan PROSWIFT (Promoting Research and Observations of Space Weather to Improve the Forecasting of Tomorrow) Act [https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BILLS-116s881enr/pdf/BILLS-116s881enr.pdf], passed into law in October 2020, is formalizing the need to develop better space weather forecasting tools.

“Space weather requires a real-time product so we can predict impacts before an event, not just afterward,” explained Nikolai Pogorelov, distinguished professor of Space Science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville, who has been using computers to study space weather for decades. “This subject – related to national space programs, environmental, and other issues – was recently escalated to a higher level.”

To many, space weather may seem like a distant concern, but like a pandemic — something we knew was possible and catastrophic — we may not realize its dangers until it’s too late.

“We don’t think about it, but electrical communication, GPS, and everyday gadgets can be effected by extreme space weather effects,” Pogorelov said.

Furthermore, the U.S. is planning missions to other planets and the moon. All will require very accurate predictions of space weather – for the design of spacecraft and to alert astronauts to extreme events.

With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA, Pogorelov leads a team working to improve the state-of-the-art in space weather forecasting.

“This research, blending intricate science, advanced computing and exciting observations, will advance our understanding of how the Sun drives space weather and its effects on Earth,” said Mangala Sharma, Program Director for Space Weather in the Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences at NSF. “The work will help scientists predict space weather events and build our nation’s resilience against these potential natural hazards.”

The multi-institutional effort involves the Goddard and Marshall Space Flight Centers, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and two private companies, Predictive Science Inc. and Space Systems Research Corporation.

Pogorelov uses the Frontera supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) — the ninth fastest in the world — as well as high performance systems at NASA and the San Diego Supercomputing Center, to improve the models and methods at the heart of space weather forecasting.

Turbulence plays a key role in the dynamics of the solar wind and coronal mass ejections. This complex phenomenon has many facets, including the role of shock-turbulence interaction and ion acceleration.

“Solar plasma is not in thermal equilibrium. This creates interesting features,” Pogorelov said.

Writing in the Astrophysical Journal [https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-4357/abe62c/meta] in April 2021, Pogorelov, along with Michael Gedalin (Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel), and Vadim Roytershteyn (Space Science Institute) described the role of backstreaming pickup ions in the acceleration of charged particles in the universe. Backstreaming ions, either of interstellar or local origin, are picked up by the magnetized solar wind plasma and move radially outwards from the Sun.

“Some non-thermal particles can be further accelerated to create solar energetic particles that are particularly important for space weather conditions on Earth and for people in space,” he said.

Pogorelov performed simulations on Frontera to better understand this phenomenon and compare it with observations from Voyager 1 and 2, the spacecraft that explored the outer reaches of the heliosphere and are now providing unique data from the local interstellar medium.

One of the major focuses of space weather prediction is correctly forecasting the arrival of coronal mass ejections — the release of plasma and accompanying magnetic field from the solar corona — and determining the direction of the magnetic field it carries with it. Pogorelov’s team’s study of backstreaming ions help to do so, as does work published in the Astrophysical Journal in 2020 that used a flux rope-based magnetohydrodynamic model to predict the arrival time to Earth and magnetic field configuration of the July 12, 2012 coronal mass ejection. (Magnetohydrodynamics refers the magnetic properties and behavior of electrically conducting fluids like plasma, which plays a key role in dynamics of space weather).

“Fifteen years ago, we didn’t know that much about the interstellar medium or solar wind properties,” Pogorelov said. “We have so many observations available today, which allow us to validate our codes and make them much more reliable.”

Pogorelov is a co-investigator on an on-board component of the Parker Solar Probe called SWEAP (Solar Wind Electrons, Protons, and Alphas instrument) [http://sweap.cfa.harvard.edu/]. With each orbit, the probe approaches the sun, providing new information about the characteristics of the solar wind.

“Soon it will penetrate beyond the critical sphere where the solar wind becomes superfast magnetosonic, and we’ll have information on the physics of solar wind acceleration and transport that we never had before,” he said.

As the probe and other new observational tools become available, Pogorelov anticipates a wealth of new data that can inform and drive the development of new models relevant to space weather forecasting. For that reason, alongside his basic research, Pogorelov is developing a software framework that is flexible, useable by different research groups around the world, and can integrate new observational data.

“No doubt, in years to come, the quality of data from the photosphere and solar corona will be improved dramatically, both because of new data available and new, more sophisticated ways to work with data,” he said. “We’re trying to build software in a way that if a user comes up with better boundary conditions from new science missions, it will be easier for them to integrate that information.”



Singh, T., Kim, T. K., Pogorelov, N. V., & Arge, C. N. (2020). Application of a modified spheromak model to simulations of coronal mass ejection in the inner heliosphere. Space Weather, 18, e2019SW002405. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019SW002405

Singh, T., Yalim, M. S., Pogorelov, N. V., and Gopalswamy, N., A Modified Spheromak Model Suitable for Coronal Mass Ejection Simulations, The Astrophysical Journal, vol. 894, no. 1, 2020. doi:10.3847/1538-4357/ab845f.

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Curious George
June 4, 2021 2:11 pm

Solarwinds. Rarely do I see two red flags in a single name.

Reply to  Curious George
June 4, 2021 2:20 pm

Neither is much good if you want them on demand, but one they talk about you want even less, particularly when it’s coming our way at the full blast.

Rud Istvan
June 4, 2021 2:52 pm

I have two conflicting thoughts.

First, at least this is semilegit supercomputer modeling, just like for nuclear weapons design after testing was banned. We know the basic physics, and don’t need a lot of parameterization. Unlike climate models.

Second, maybe not necessary even if semilegit. CMEs are unpredictable by definition, and this modeling is not addressing their fundamental predictability (why and when the Sun ‘burps’). But by simply observing when they do happen (as space weather satellites have been doing that for many years now), from solar rotation (imparting angular momentum to the ejecta) we know about where they will ‘hit’, from past observations also about when they will hit, and from past observations of ‘strength’ (how big) also about how bad they will be. No models needed.

Sort of a Joe Bastardi approach to space weather prediction.

Reply to  Rud Istvan
June 4, 2021 8:13 pm

The point is you have time between an event and the consequences on earth. While electromagnetic energy gets here as fast as any warning signal (unless you can predict from precursor conditions on the sun), mass ejections/plasma take a day or so. With return periods of a couple of 200 years for major events that will fry enough transformers to leave countries without a transmission system, it’s worth trying to predict when a big one’s is on its way.

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  HAS
June 4, 2021 8:38 pm

Late in my career at TRW, I was co-founder of a cabal we called the TRW Space Launch Services Organization. We were trying to get TRW, a satellite manufacturer, into the commercial space launch services business (this was 1989). We had Motorola as an anchor customer, with its IRIDIUM LEO telecom constellation, but were always looking for more customers. Ball Aerospace had come up with a nifty idea for a CME early warning system, and we went up to Denver to meet with them and representatives from the electric power industry, and their insurers. Ball’s briefing was, in my opinion, compelling. But the electric power people, and their insurers, basically said “Meh. If it happens, we’re insured.” The scope of the disaster at that time might not have been as large as it is today, but still…

And it makes me wonder if the Greenies, who want everything electrified, have even considered how great a disaster a Carrington event would be in the world they’re forcing us into.

Reply to  Michael S. Kelly
June 5, 2021 12:37 am

“And it makes me wonder if the Greenies, who want everything electrified, have even considered how great a disaster a Carrington event would be in the world they’re forcing us into.”

No, it’s unlightly they’ve even heard of it,
… if they have, they probably think it’s a woke rave party to get stoned at.

Reply to  Michael S. Kelly
June 6, 2021 5:25 am

Michael, do you have the faintest idea what an incredible gift it might be if all the electronic doodads the Greenbeaners have were suddenly fried out of existence? They would be lost souls!!!

I guess I should ask the computer guys about how much protection there is in my desktop. Probably should make a written (by hand) list of all my phone contacts, too, just to make sure nothing gets lost just because the iPhone got fried. 🙂

Reply to  HAS
June 5, 2021 7:11 am

Though “electromagnetic energy” travels at the speed of light, there is no known danger from it beyond sunburns and ultraviolet damage. Coronal mass ejections are the significant danger, as we have known for more than 150 years. They take anywhere from 1 to 5 days to impact Earth. Our current satellites give ample warning.

Reply to  stinkerp
June 5, 2021 1:27 pm

It’s how it will interact with the earth’s magnetic field that’s the uncertainty.

Reply to  Rud Istvan
June 5, 2021 1:35 am

There is a certain degree of predictability. Decaying part of a cycle tend to be more CME active. Since large sunspots tend to eject more mass when the ~250 degree solar longitude which is more active (as illustrated here http://www.vukcevic.co.uk/nSSLong.gif) is facing the Earth there is a higher probability of satellites getting a hit. 

Alastair Brickell
June 4, 2021 6:39 pm

Sounds like useful research to me. We should be spending more time and dollars studying our closest star and less on AGW. Great images.

June 4, 2021 6:59 pm

The more we know about the Sun the better but whether this sort of modeling will
be fruitful is uncertain. But I say we should encourage it since the Sun keeps us alive, affects our weather and periodically messes with our communications system.
And if there was any need for a big infrastructure bill out of Washington (and I have serious doubts) it should include enough money to harden our (fragile) electrical grid against another Carrington Event (or maybe a stray high altitude nuke?). At the least we should stockpile some
of the larger transformers (IIRC none of which are made in USA).

June 4, 2021 7:01 pm

“There’s a Detectable Human-Made Barrier Surrounding EarthBEC CREW
5 APRIL 2018
In 2017, NASA space probes detected a massive, human-made ‘barrier’ surrounding Earth.
And tests have confirmed that it’s actually having an effect on space weather far beyond our planet’s atmosphere. That means we’re not just changing Earth so severely, scientists are calling for a whole new geological epoch to be named after us – our activities have been changing space too.
But the good news is that unlike our influence on the planet itself, that humungous bubble we created out in space is actually working in our favour”
There’s a Detectable Human-Made Barrier Surrounding Earth (sciencealert.com)

Curious George
Reply to  jmorpuss
June 5, 2021 8:19 am

What a beautiful, very Scientific American story.

Joseph Zorzin
June 5, 2021 3:41 am

“Such space weather events can be catastrophic.”

I’m sensing an overuse of the word “catastrophe”. WWII was a catastrophe. Knocking down the World Trade Towers was a catastrophe. Damaging satellites and the grid is very unfortunate but not really a catastrophe. The climatistas use the word every day which is wearing the word out.

June 5, 2021 12:01 pm

How bad would a big flare be? Will it erase my hard drive? How much damage to the power grid? Every time I see one of these stories I get the urge to buy a generator.

Tombstone Gabby
Reply to  tommyboy
June 5, 2021 6:42 pm

G’day Tommyboy

 Will it erase my hard drive?

To protect electronics one needs a Faraday cage. Some interesting information at:


A “Faraday briefcase” for $500 – ouch!!

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