Armenia's Space Weather Station Draws More Limelight
By Daphne Abeel
STANFORD, Calif. - Physicist Anahid Yeremian is the co-founder of Friends of the Cosmic Ray Division (CRD), a laboratory in Armenia which pursues space weather research. The important focus of CRD's work is the study of rays particles and magnetic fields from the sun which pierce the earth's atmosphere and can affect the functioning of satellites, television and radio stations, global positioning systems, airline travel, and the launching of space travel. Yeremian has worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) since 1990 and recently attended an international space weather symposium at Mt. Aragats, CRD'S facility in Armenia. It drew 75 scientists from 11 different countries. The laboratory is known internationally as a research center.
CRD enjoys a unique location, said Yeremian, for studying space weather. Situated between the North Pole and the equator, it is ideally placed for collecting data. Its particular altitude on Mt. Aragats enhances the signal to noise ratio, thus the reception of data.
Said Yeremian, "We met some brand new people this year as NASA listed the conference on its Internet site. People came from Costa Rica and Italy. It was a significant step forward for CRD and the world, and it brought an important focus to the cosmic ray community which concentrates on space weather."
The conference focused on "solar eruptions [causing rays, particles and associated magnetic fields emanating from the sun that can penetrate the earth's atmosphere] in 2005. The biggest one was in January."
These eruptions at varying severity, according to Yeremian, are common and occur in the forms of solar flares, coronal mass ejections and solar winds. They tend to occur in cycles, with severe events coming every 11 years.
Said Yeremian, "We are five to six years past the last 11-year cycle peak, so we should be near the minimum point. However, we've had some huge events recently, which tell us this is a new science. We don't have a big database for tracking these events. We think there was a very large event in 1954 based on some indirect indicators. If we had had people in space at that time, they probably would have died. Because of lack of data, a lot could have happened that we simply didn't know about."
The aurora borealis, which can be viewed mainly in northern latitudes (also Aurora Austrialis in the southern latitudes), are recorded events, said Yeremian, "but the people who saw them, the Eskimos and Native Americans, didn't measure them or understand them with the thoroughness that we would today with scientific instruments."
The aurora borealis is the result of space weather, particles from the sun which reach the earth's atmosphere, explained Yeremian. When the particles pass through the atmosphere, they interact and create secondary particles, with some energy given off in the form of light.
"These particles and rays carry radiation," said Yeremian. "You don't want to look directly at or be under the severe events.
We are learning how to record and understand events from the sun better and better at a very rapid pace. One of the first disasters that can definitely be linked to severe space weather was recorded in 1989. "This one took out a transformer of a power station in Canada. The stream of high-speed, ionized particles ejected primarily from the sun's corona, known as solar winds, rush to earth and disrupt the earth's magnetic field which acts as an “insulator” against the incoming shower of ionized particles. The rapid and extreme alteration of the earth’s magnetic field due to these external events is classified as a Geomagnetic storm. The space weather conditions in 1989 caused the electromagnetic environment to exceed the specifications for which this transformer at the power station in Quebec was designed for by several fold, and it burned up and failed. It knocked out power all the way from Quebec to northern New Jersey. This was a serious event that caused people to take notice and boosted the desire for better scientific understanding and forecasting of space weather events. It was one of the pivotal points."
The study of space weather cannot avert these geomagnetic storms, said Yeremian, but it could make it possible to predict them reliably and with enough advance warning to take mitigating action.
"The danger of these eruptions is that you cannot avoid them. They can interact with satellite systems. Satellites operate in a frictionless atmosphere, but these particles create friction and can pull a satellite out of its orbit," said Yeremian. "The particles interfere with electronics of a guidance system. So far, more than a dozen satellites have been lost or cut short in life due to these phenomena."
Space weather study is becoming increasingly important, said Yeremian, because our lives are increasingly dependent on satellites. "Space weather affects cell phones, the Department of Defense's 'smart bombs,' global positioning systems, television and radio stations, emergency warning systems, airline flights over the poles and many other aspects of our lives. Missions to the Moon and Mars are dependent on knowing and forecasting space weather which can determine when to start missions, and how to take mitigating action against a predicted event. The choice of the launching date for the Hubble Space Telescope is a prime example of that." said Yeremian.
CRD receives grants from three sources: support from the Armenian government, from international grants, and from the Diaspora friends of CRD. “We are writing proposals and are hopeful. CRD is unique in the international community for what it can do. The Diaspora plays an important role with its support,” Yeremian added.
Joseph Dagdigian from Harvard, Mass., who is co-founder of the Support Committee for Armenia’s Cosmic Ray division with Yeremian, also attended the conference and was enthusiastic about the level of participants.
“We had scientists from the US, Russia, Europe, Costa Rica, Japan. There has been a close collaboration between Japan and CRD. Prof. Muraki, head of the World Wide Neutron Telescope Network, which includes the neutron telescope on Mt. Aragats, has been working with CRD for a number of years. The instrument on Aragats has the Armenian and Japanese flag painted on it.”
He seconded Yeremian’s mention of the laboratory’s financial needs. “The first time I visited there, I was appalled by the poor conditions, but things are better than they were five years ago. The major problem is that people are underpaid and the facilities at Mt. Aragats are in constant need of repair due to the severe weather conditions.”
Dagdigian, who works as a software engineer at Bluesocket, a small firm in Burlington, said a recent agreement with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would help to advance CRD’s aims.
Yeremian holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Drexel University. After graduation, she first worked for government laboratory and then for Boeing. In 1990 Stanford University invited her to join the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC).
I was interested in science from a very young age. In fifth grade I wanted to be a mathematician, in sixth I wanted to be a chemist, in seventh grade I settled on physics. I really had a passion for the field. You get to figure out how things work.”
Yeremian was born in Armenia and immigrated with her parents to the US in 1968 at the age of 14. Her mother was born in the US but moved to Armenia in the 1940’s after World War II. Her father had come to Armenia from Lebanon.
“There is a community of about 30,000 Armenians in and around San Francisco,” said Yeremian. “It’s not that big, but it tends to be a close and cooperative community. There are five churches in the area and we all go to each other’s banquets and bazaars.”
The next important scientific summit for the CRD will be held in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. This one is organized by the UN, NASSA, and ESA (European Space Agency) and its aim is to recommend key space projects in preparation for the International Heliophysical Year 2007 (IHY-07). CRD has submitted a proposal for consideration and Prof. Ashot Chilingarian, head of the CRD will represent Armenia at the summit.
For more information about the CRD, visit www.crdfriends.org .
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