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NSF, NASA partner to address space weather research, forecasting

Solar activity simulation

Solar activity simulation: Interaction of two coronal mass ejections in the inner heliosphere. The distribution of plasma temperature and magnetic field lines.
Credit: Talwinder Singh, Tae Kim, and Nikolai Pogorelov, University of Alabama in Huntsville; Charles N. Arge, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

September 01, 2020

Space weather — solar wind, coronal mass ejections, magnetic storms, upper atmosphere disturbances — can damage infrastructure from electrical power supplies and computer networks to satellite and radio communications — and can even threaten astronauts' health. Accurate forecasting of energetic events on the sun and in the near-Earth space environment is critical for national security and the wellbeing of society. To address this need, the U.S. National Science Foundation and NASA have partnered in funding six projects that will lay the groundwork for faster and more robust space weather forecasting capabilities.

Motivated by the White House National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan and the National Strategic Computing Initiative, NSF and NASA created the Space Weather with Quantified Uncertainties program. The program brings together teams from across scientific disciplines to advance the latest statistical analysis and high-performance computing methods within the field of space weather modeling.

"These awards will make sure that recent, extraordinary advances in computer modeling and data assimilation techniques are applied to critical questions in space weather research," says Mangala Sharma, NSF program officer for space weather in the Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences." Space weather is a complex phenomenon, the study of which spans physical and geospace sciences, applied mathematics and computing. To address it, these projects bring together researchers with complementary expertise."

Together, NSF and NASA are investing over $17 million into six, three-year awards, each of which contributes to key research that can expand the nation's space weather prediction capabilities.

"Space weather involves intricate interactions between the sun, the solar wind, Earth's magnetic field and Earth's atmosphere," said Jim Spann, the space weather lead for NASA's heliophysics division at NASA headquarters in Washington. "Our ability to understand the sun-Earth system is of growing importance to economies, national security, and our society as it increasingly depends on technology. NASA and NSF through this program enable the operational organizations, NOAA and the Department of Defense, to incorporate that understanding into operational models and space weather predictions to better prepare us for potential impacts."

The projects include collaborations among multiple universities, national labs, and private companies across the country, offering opportunities to build connections with federal agencies and international partners and providing training for early career researchers.

  • Improving Space Weather Predictions with Data-Driven Models of the Solar Atmosphere and Inner Heliosphere, led by the University of Alabama in Huntsville and jointly supported by NSF and NASA, seeks to improve predictions of solar wind and coronal mass ejections by developing a data-driven model of the sun's upper atmosphere and how it might impact Earth.
  • NextGen Space Weather Modeling Framework, led by the University of Michigan and supported by NSF, will develop a model for optimal probabilistic sun-to-Earth space weather forecasting with a focus on major space weather events generated by coronal mass ejections.
  • A Flexible Community-based Upper Atmosphere Ensemble Prediction System, (NASA award) led by the University of Michigan and supported by NASA, will produce a model of the Earth's upper atmosphere that accounts for gaps in available data and improves on current model and software limitations.
  • Composable Next Generation Software Framework, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and supported by NSF, aims to develop portable, extendable and sustainable space weather modeling software for current and next-generation high performance computing systems with uncertainty quantification and practical data assimilation.
  • Forecasting Small-Scale Plasma Structures in the Earth's Ionosphere-Thermosphere System, led by the University of Colorado Boulder and supported by NSF, will investigate plasma irregularities and changes in geomagnetic activity that could interrupt GPS satellites and other radio signals.
  • Ensemble Learning for Accurate and Reliable Uncertainty Quantification, (NASA award) led by the University of Colorado Boulder and supported by NASA, will introduce probabilistic modeling, estimations of uncertainty, and machine learning to space weather forecasting in order to improve their accuracy.

"This work aims to engage researchers from diverse scientific backgrounds to advance our understanding of what is both necessary and sufficient for predicting potentially harmful space weather events," says Slava Lukin, NSF program officer for plasma physics in the Division of Physics. "We hope that, by making models and software publicly available, these projects will seed advances that will transform our future space weather forecasting abilities."

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