NASA’s DAGGER could give advance warning of next big solar storm

NASA’s DAGGER could give advance warning of next big solar storm

NASA's DAGGER could give advance warning of next big solar storm

There are enough problems on this planet already that we don’t need new problems from the sun. Unfortunately, we cannot yet destroy this ruthless star, so we are at its mercy. But NASA at least may soon be able to let us know when one of its killer eruptions will wreak havoc on our Earth systems.

Understanding and predicting space weather is a big part of NASA’s job. There’s no air up there, so no one can hear you scream, “Wow, how about that radiation!” Therefore, we rely on an array of satellites to detect and transmit this important data to us.

One of these measurements is that of the solar wind, “an incessant flow of matter from the sun”. Even NASA can’t think of anything nice to say about it! Normally, this flux is absorbed or dissipated by our magnetosphere, but if there is a solar storm, it can be intense enough to overwhelm local defenses.

When this happens, it can break down electronics, as these charged particles can flip bits or disrupt volatile memory like RAM and solid-state storage. NASA reports that even telegraph stations were unsafe, exploding during the largest solar storm on record, the Carrington event of 1859.

While we can’t prevent these stellar events from happening, we might be better prepared for them if we knew they were coming. But usually, by the time we know it, they’re already there. But how to predict such rare and chaotic events?

View of NASA’s SOHO satellite submerged during a solar storm in 2003. Picture credits: Nasa

A joint project between NASA, the US Geological Survey, and the Department of Energy at the Frontier Development Lab has looked at this problem, and the answer is exactly what you’d expect: machine learning.

The team collected data on solar flares from several satellites monitoring the sun, as well as from ground stations monitoring geomagnetic disturbances (called disturbances), such as those affecting technology. The deep learning model they designed identified patterns in how the first leads to the second, and they call the resulting system DAGGER: Duh theArninGGeomagnetic pErtuRbation.

Yes, it is exaggerated. But it seems to work.

Using the geomagnetic storms that hit Earth in 2011 and 2015 as test data, the team found that DAGGER was able to quickly and accurately predict their effects around the world. This combines the strengths of the previous approaches while avoiding their drawbacks. As NASA said:

Previous prediction models used AI to produce local geomagnetic forecasts for specific locations on Earth. Other models that didn’t use AI provided overall predictions that weren’t very timely. DAGGER is the first to combine rapid AI analysis with real-world measurements from space and across Earth to generate frequently updated predictions that are both fast and accurate for sites around the world.

It might take a little while before you get a solar alert on your phone telling you to pull over or your car might stop running (this won’t actually happen…probably), but it could make a big difference when we know that there is vulnerable infrastructure that could suddenly shut down. A few minutes warning is better than nothing!

You can read the article describing the DAGGER model, which, by the way, is open source, in this issue of the journal Space Weather.


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