A new center will undertake research to make the region of space between Earth and the moon a little safer—potentially helping satellites navigate through this tumultuous and sometimes hazardous environment. Led by the University of Colorado Boulder, the SWORD Center also involves participation from faculty at the University of Michigan and other institutions.
In August, NASA announced the selection of four Space Weather Centers of Excellence, including the Space Weather Operational Readiness Development (SWORD) center, as well as the CLEAR Center at the University of Michigan. As its name suggests, the nearly $10 million SWORD Center will offer powerful protection for the planet: SWORD research will seek to help scientists develop more accurate and timely conditions of the “space weather” hundreds of miles above the surface of Earth—where impacts from solar storms can increase the risk of satellite collisions and interfere with communications and navigation.
The University of Michigan team includes Professor Tuija Pulkkinen, who will serve as the institutional P.I., and Tamas Gombosi, Zhenguang Huang, Aaron Ridley, and Shasha Zou from U-M Climate and Space, as well as Yang Chen from the LSA Department of Statistics.
The SWORD Center emerged from the Space Weather Technology, Research and Education Center (SWx TREC), which was funded through the CU Boulder Grand Challenge initiative “Our Space. Our Future.” Tom Berger, the executive director for SWx TREC, will serve as the P.I. for the SWORD Center, and Professor Tuija Pulkkinen will serve as the P.I. for the University of Michigan in their involvement in the initiative.
“This important award is the result of years of investment and collaboration across our campus,” said Massimo Ruzzene, vice chancellor for research and innovation and dean of the institutes at CU Boulder. “With added contributions from our renowned research institutes, our College of Engineering and Applied Science, and partners beyond our campus, this kind of impact is only possible through the cross-disciplinary approach that makes CU Boulder so unique.”
The center also includes researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) High Altitude Observatory, the University of Alaska, University of Iowa, and the NASA Langley Research Center, as well as the University of Michigan. The project is a testament to decades of devoted research at these institutions in investigating the deep connections between Earth and the sun.
“The SWORD Center strengthens our ties to Boulder, CO, by bringing a strong space weather research component and collaboration with the University of Colorado that complements our operational collaboration with the Space Weather Prediction Center” said Professor Tuija Pulkkinen, at the U-M Department of Climate and Space. “The research and the operational model we will develop will expand our expertise in space weather at low-Earth orbit, which is an area of high interest as both the solar activity and number of satellites on low-Earth orbit are increasing.”
In emphasizing the need for the SWORD center, Berger noted that forecasting weather in space isn’t as easy as forecasting it on the ground in Boulder.
“The space weather system is more complex,” said Berger. “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.”
Through SWORD, he and his colleagues will conduct research to improve the computer simulations, or models, that scientists use to forecast those shifts. That includes how those models can pull in real-time observations from space. Berger hopes that one day these tools could help operators protect satellites in orbit in the same way that ship captains use weather reports to steer clear of dangers at sea.
The consequences of fluctuations in space weather can be serious. In February 2022, dozens of satellites in orbit around Earth were lost during what scientists call a “geomagnetic storm.”
Berger explained that Earth’s upper atmosphere doesn’t stay still during these storms. Instead, it expands or shrinks by hundreds of miles depending on radiation coming from the sun and electrical currents in the ionosphere—almost as if the planet itself is breathing. Several days before the satellites’ launch, the sun experienced a particularly large magnetic eruption, ultimately causing Earth’s atmosphere to puff up just as the satellites reached low Earth orbit. They were dragged back into the atmosphere where they burned up on re-entry.
Today, scientists at the Space Weather Prediction Center led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast these kinds of events using a suite of models. The tools seek to replicate the complex physics in space, entirely from a computer screen on Earth. But that isn’t easy.
“One of the challenges in space weather modeling is that you don’t have one model. You have many separate models,” Berger said. “We use one model for the sun and solar wind, one model for Earth’s magnetic field and another for the upper atmosphere and ionosphere and so on.”
The team’s work could, ultimately, help the Space Weather Prediction Center build better tools for making up-to-date forecasts of conditions in space. The research may also benefit U.S. Space Force and civilian space traffic managers as they keep track of the ever-growing number of satellites and debris objects in orbit.
As a start, SWORD researchers will lay the groundwork to help these models work better together. Berger added that weather forecasts are so accurate on Earth, in part, because scientists are constantly feeding them with real-world data—such as readings of barometric pressures, wind speeds and more. He and his colleagues hope to do the same with space weather forecasts, incorporating data from satellites already in orbit. Berger sees a day when satellites can use their GPS navigation data to provide space weather forecasters with up-to-the-minute reports about what’s happening in space.
“Then satellite operators can assess collision risks and plan avoidance maneuvers more reliably, particularly during space weather storms,” he said.