Members of the public acting as 'citizen scientists' have aided experts developing a new system for forecasting when potentially dangerous solar storms will hit Earth.
Physicists from Reading enlisted help to analyse so-called 'coronal mass ejections' (CMEs) — powerful expulsions of charged particles and magnetic field from the Sun.
When they reach Earth, in as little as 15 hours, CMEs have the potential to damage electrical equipment — from orbiting satellites to ground-based energy grids.
A solar storm in 1859, for example — the 'Carrington Event' — induced such currents in telegraph wires that pylons sparked and operators received electric shocks.
Predicting when these storms occur could help governments and companies protect satellites, the power grid and communications infrastructure from surges.
Detecting weather in space is also important for safeguarding the health of astronauts — who can receive harmful doses of radiation if unshielded from storms.
'CMEs are sausage-shaped blobs made up of billions of tonnes of magnetised plasma that erupt from the Sun's atmosphere at a million miles an hour,' said space weather researcher Luke Barnard of the University of Reading.
'They are capable of damaging satellites, overloading power grids and exposing astronauts to harmful radiation. Predicting when they are on a collision course with Earth is therefore extremely important.'
But this, he explained, 'is made difficult by the fact the speed and direction of CMEs vary wildly and are affected by solar wind, and they constantly change shape as they travel through space.'
The researchers used computer models to predict when solar storms will arrive at Earth, using analysis provided by members of the public involved in the 'Solar Stormwatch' citizen science project.
They said that their models are able to run up to 200 different simulations — compared to the 20-odd currently used by more complex models.
The researchers found their forecasts to be 20 per cent more accurate, providing improved estimates of the solar wind speed and its impact on CME movement.
'Solar storm forecasts are currently based on observations of coronal mass ejections as soon as they leave the Sun's surface, meaning they come with a large degree of uncertainty,' explained Dr Barnard.
'The volunteer data offered a second stage of observations at a point when the CME was more established, which gave a better idea of its shape and trajectory.'
'The value of additional CME observations demonstrates how useful it would be to include cameras on board spacecraft in future space weather monitoring missions.'
'More accurate predictions could help prevent catastrophic damage to our infrastructure and could even save lives,' he concluded.
'The only thing more unpredictable than British weather is space weather,' said UK Space Agency head of space science, Caroline Harper.
'Fortunately for life on Earth, most solar flares are not emitted in the direction of our home planet and they typically take between one and three days to reach us.'
“We already have a UK-built spacecraft called Solar Orbiter on its way to the Sun to improve space weather science.'
'Together with the help of this volunteer army of citizen scientists, we will improve our prediction of solar storms, which means we can better protect satellites and important infrastructure vital to our everyday lives.'
The full findings of the study were published in the journal AGU Advances.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.