'Weather central' named for space storms
Posted: September 19, 2002

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has named Boston University to lead the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling (CISM), a new $20 million, multi-institutional NSF Science and Technology Center. The center will create computer models able to provide advance warning of potentially harmful space weather events that could put astronauts at risk, disable satellites, disrupt communications, or cause costly damage on earth. In addition to BU, the center consists of research groups at seven other universities and several government and non-profit research organizations and commercial firms.

"Space weather" includes a wide range of phenomena that arise in space near the earth through the interaction of powerful forces associated with the sun, the earth, and the constant outward flow of material from the sun known as the solar wind. Because of global reliance on satellite-based communications and monitoring systems, continent-wide power grids, and other technologies like extended pipeline facilities, all of which are vulnerable to the effects of space weather, understanding the phenomenon has become as important as understanding monsoons, hurricanes, and El Nino.

W. Jeffrey Hughes, director of the new BU center, says that CISM will focus on the central and most ambitious research goal of the U.S. government's National Space Weather Program: building a comprehensive, physics-based computer model that can accurately simulate the complex, closely interconnected variables-from explosions on the sun to aurora on the earth and almost everything in-between-that give rise to the specific manifestations of space weather.

"Within this goal," Hughes elaborates, "we will not only do new science, but we will also build a robust and operationally useful forecasting tool for both civilian and military space weather forecasters and create novel education programs that will give students at all levels a better understanding of the geospace environment."

At present no computer model includes all the elements that make up space weather and not one can reliably predict near-earth phenomena as few as two days in advance, the goal of the CISM effort. "Current predictions are based on techniques analogous to those used by meteorologists 50 years ago," says Charles Goodrich, deputy director of CISM. "We are confident," Goodrich goes on, "that with the knowledge base and the advanced computer technology now available, we can create the first integrated predictive space weather model within the next ten years."

As a first step, the Boston University-led CISM will create a single comprehensive model by coupling existing sub-models, several of which have been developed by members of the consortium. This early effort will be refined over time as it is tested against empirical observations from many sources, both ground-based-such as CISM-member Stanford's Wilcox Solar Observatory-and space-based-such as NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer and HESSI (High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager) satellites. The model will grow and evolve as new knowledge and understanding of the underlying physics are developed.

The Boston University-led center is one of six new Science and Technology Centers the NSF has announced it will begin funding this year. NSF established the Science and Technology Center program in 1987 to fund important fundamental research efforts that also create educational opportunities, encourage technology transfer, and provide innovative approaches to interdisciplinary research challenges. NSF's support for the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University is $20 million over the next five years, renewable for another five years.

Universities in the BU-led consortium include Alabama A & M, Dartmouth College, Rice University, Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the University of Texas at El Paso. Government and industrial members are the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center, Science Applications International Corporation, the Space Science Institute, and Lockheed Martin Corporation.

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