Alert Service for Extreme Radiation Storms
Head of Cosmic Ray Division
Yerevan Physics Institute, Yerevan 375036, Armenia
November 19, 2002
How much revenue would be lost if the ATT communication satellite suddenly ceased to function? What if Communications between the Chief Executive Officer of the United States and his troops were cut off unexpectedly and it took days to restore it? And what if the Global Positioning Systems that are an integral part of our “smart” weapons failed just when we needed them the most?
All these are very real possibilities because of Space Weather disturbances due to violent explosions on the sun including Solar Flares (SF) and Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) which occur frequently during the years of maximum solar activity. The fluxes of high energy ions (radiation storms) and magnetized clouds of hot plasma headed toward Earth are the most important consequences of these explosions. Some of them are powerful enough to disrupt satellite electronics, damage power grids on the ground, and harm space station crews and over the pole flight passengers. The sun’s activity has an eleven-year cycle. Currently we are near the peak of its activity cycle.
It’s Happened Before:
In 1982, during solar cycle 21, the GOES-4 satellite’s visible and infrared spin-scan radiometer and Marecs-B, a marine navigational satellite, were disabled after the arrival of high-energy ions accelerated by the shock wave from the CME . The GOES-7 weather satellite lost half of its solar cells and its life span was cut in half when a large flux of heavy ions (mostly stripped iron nuclei) from the powerful March 13, 1989 radiation storm reached the earth. Local radio transmissions in Minnesota were overpowered by California Highway Patrol messages . In 1994 the Canadian communications satellites ANIK E1 and E2 were disabled, and in 1997 the AT&T Telstar 401 communications satellite and NASA’s GOES-8 weather satellite showed signs of malfunctioning, all a result of severe explosions on the sun resulting in radiation and particle ejections . These are but a few examples out of many which could have been prevented by putting the satellite electronics on standby in a controlled fashion for the duration of the particle shower. Human health can also be protected by requesting the space station crew to take cover in shielded bunkers for the duration. The key to the solution is an early and reliable detection of the arrival of the dangerous particles, early enough to allow time for analyzing the data, sending a warning, and taking mitigating action.
The key to space weather forecasting is timeliness of data. A very important and critical observation is made by Dr. Joseph Kunches, acting chief of Space Weather Operations at NOAA’s Space Environment Center. “If we can’t get the data, no matter how good it is, within a few minutes of when it is sampled, it’s of little value. So many things happen so quickly… we need data as fast as possible”. Expecting to design out troublesome problems that might be spurred by space weather is like saying “We’ve made mobile homes safe from tornados” according to Larry Plummer, managing partner for Earth2Sun International LLC, in Westminster CO. .
An Element of the Solution:
Armenia’s Cosmic Ray Division (CRD) is working toward establishing the Aragats Space Environment Center (ASEC) and a prototype alert service to be part of the world wide network of ground based stations for 24 hour alert coverage. Its aim is to consistently and reliably predict the arrival of the most dangerous particles from severe explosions on the sun at least 30 minutes in advance of their arrival.
The large area detectors at the Cosmic Ray Stations on Mt. Aragats in Armenia, make it possible to register the very few, very high energy and early arriving particles which precede the dangerously high flux of medium energy particles unleashed by only the severe explosions on the sun. We can gather data at approximately 30 minutes in advance of the arrival of the dangerous flux.
Highest energy particlers arrive first and to Earth and interacting with the atmosphere generatedshowers of elementary particles (muons, electrons ,neutrons, etc…). The most energetic of them reach mountain altitudes and trigger signals in particle monitors. These sudden increases in count rates due to additional flux from solar ions is used to forecast the coming radiation storms. The arrival of the highest energy ions indicate a severe explosion on the sun and are the forerunners to the large number of the low and medium energy particles which cause the actual harm to satellites and humans in space and over the pole flights.
Thirty minutes plenty of time to analyze the data and send out a warning, but it is enough time for the satellite operator to consult with his/her superiors and receive permission to put the electronics on stand-by using a pre-arranged computer controlled procedure.
The following features make the ASEC in Armenia a valuable partner to the world network of Space weather research organizations and detectors.
• It has a very strategic geographic location both in terms of its coordinates and its altitude to maximize the signal to noise ratio for the detection of the very few early arriving particles which signal the onset of severe and damaging Space Weather.
• It has an existing very extensive infrastructure with very expensive detectors, data acquisition systems, and facilities for extended stays of personnel at the stations at 10,500 ft. and 6,500 ft elevation on Mt. Aragats. The stations are manned all year round.
• The Scientist of the CRD are seasoned Cosmic Ray Physicists who, using sophisticated data analysis methods, developed by them and used by Cosmic Ray Physicists around the world, have already analyzed some of the early warning data registered by their detectors. Several papers have been submitted to refereed journals and conference proceedings [6,7,8,9,10].
• Currently among all the ground level facilities only ASEC monitors provide correlated multidimensional information on the temporal evolution of the secondary cosmic ray fluxes. Valuable information on abrupt changes of major species of cosmic ray flux from the ASEC detectors, along with information from space based telescopes will carve the path to reliable and timely forecasting service. Similar ground based detectors can be place around the world for 24 hour coverage.
• Because of the breakthrough work at ASEC the CRD head, Prof. Ashot Chilingarian has made invited presentations at the Space Weather workshop in Nagoya Japan, and the European Cosmic Ray Conference in Moscow this year. CRD is a member of the Commission for Space Research (COSPAR) and participated in the Space Congress conference in Houston in October.
The consequences of solar activity and the mitigating efforts to protect civilian and military satellites in light of it, is the subject of continuing study by the U. S. Space Science Board  and the European Space Agency . The Cosmic Ray Division in Armenia is conducting breakthrough research in the area of ground-based monitoring and early warning of the arrival of the harmful events to earth and is a vital element of the world network of organizations striving to characterize Space Weather and send early warning when danger is imminent. As an added bonus, the work of the CRD in Armenia is conducted at 50 times lower cost than anywhere else in the world because of the cost effective expertise available in Armenia as well as very expensive detectors and raw materials for new detectors mad available in the more affluent Soviet era.
The Aragats Space Environmental Center of Armenia’s Cosmic Ray Division would be a vital element of the world wide effort to accurately and reliably forecast the danger posed by severe solar explosions. The outcome of its research is vital to the defense of the free world, it can save lives in space, and it can save billions for Satelite operators and Satellite customer.
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