Today's Eclipse May Help Scientists Predict Space Weather Storms

solar eclipse
A new simulation of the sun's corona during the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 (Image credit: Predictive Science, Inc.)

While most people will be busy oohing and aahing at today's total solar eclipse, a group of scientists will be using supercomputers to determine whether their careful predictions about the sun's corona — the trippy halo of plasma that radiates from the sun during the solar eclipse — will come true.

In just a few hours today (Aug. 21), the moon will completely block out the sun for several hours along a narrow path that stretches across 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina. This much-anticipated solar eclipse will provide an unprecedented chance to visualize the sun's corona — the fiery jets of plasma that stream out from the sun.

If these images confirm what researchers have predicted in their models, it could, in turn, help scientists better predict stormy weather out in space. [See Gorgeous Images of the Sun's Corona During the Solar Eclipse]

"With the ability to more accurately model solar plasmas, researchers will be able to better predict and reduce the impacts of space weather on key pieces of infrastructure that drive today's digital world," Niall Gaffney, a former Hubble Space Telescope scientist and director of data-intensive computing at The University of Texas at Austin's Texas Advanced Computing Center, said in a statement.

High-level simulation

Before the researchers created the models, they produced gorgeous, psychedelic images by capturing oscillations in the magnetic field at the surface of the sun using NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. That data was then combined with magnetic-field maps, information on the sun's rotation rate and models of how the electrical field of interacting jets of plasma in the sun's corona affect each other.

Then, the team used the data to produce a mathematical model of the corona. Imaging the corona required translating that sophisticated model into a complex, 3D visualization using supercomputing power from Stampede2 at the Texas Advanced Computing Center; Comet at the San Diego Supercomputer Center; and Pleiades at NASA (which are supported by NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research).

Once the eclipse occurs, the team has a rare opportunity to compare its simulations of the corona with the reality. For instance, sun watchers on jets will capture images of the corona as the total eclipse occurs.

"By tracing magnetic field lines at extremely high resolution, we can calculate a 3D map of the so-called magnetic squashing factor — a scientific measure designed to indicate the presence of complex structuring in the magnetic field," the researchers wrote in a web post describing their work.

The findings could help researchers better predict space weather, which can cause tremendous damage. For instance, the 1859 Carrington Event, a powerful geomagnetic storm, fueled gorgeous auroral views as far south as the Caribbean and caused telegraph lines to burst into flame. Such an event today would cause up to $2 trillion in damages if it were to occur, a National Academy of Sciences report previously found.

The team will present its findings between Aug. 22 and Aug. 24, during the Solar Physics Division meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Portland, Oregon.

Originally published on Live Science.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.