Friday, December 20, 2013

Supercomputers capture turbulence in the solar wind

Solar storms unleash bursts of radiation that can reach crew and passengers on commercial flights at certain altitudes and latitudes. 

Eventually the system could be used to log radiation exposure over longer periods of time for pilots and flight crews. 

Credit: NASA

As inhabitants of Earth, our lives are dominated by weather.

Not just in the form of rain and snow from atmospheric clouds, but also a sea of charged particles and magnetic fields generated by a star sitting 93 million miles away—our Sun.

This phenomenon is called solar wind.

When strong magnetic storms occur on the Sun, tons of highly energetic particles are released into the solar wind.

If these particles were free to hit the Earth, the radiation would cause life-threatening damage to our DNA, debilitate power grids, disrupt communications networks and damage electronic devices.

Fortunately for us, the Earth's magnetic dipole field and magnetosphere act as an invisible shield barring these particles from plummeting through the atmosphere.

However, this magnetic shield is not perfect and during particularly intense solar storms the magnetosphere can "crack," allowing charged particles to seep in and wreak havoc on the Earth's technological infrastructure—an event calledspace weather.

Homa Karimabadi
Scientists currently do not have the ability to accurately predict the severity of a space weather event or where it will have the most impact but a team of researchers led by University of California, San Diego's (UCSD's) Homa Karimabadi is hoping to change that.

"One of the challenges in developing accurate predictive forecasts is that the solar wind is turbulent, and the details of turbulence are not well understood," says Karimabadi, who heads the space plasma simulation group at UCSD.

Because turbulence in the solar wind occurs on widely different scales of physics—from planet-size to the sub-atomic—it is especially difficult to study but using supercomputers at the National Institute of Computational Sciences (NICS), Karimabadi and his colleagues managed to simulate all the scales of solar wind turbulence at once—for the first time ever.

Burlen Loring
To make sense of this massive dataset, they tapped Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) Visualization Specialist Burlen Loring, who developed custom analysis tools using supercomputers at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC).

Loring's work allows researchers to study turbulence in unprecedented detail, and the results may hold clues about some of the processes that lead to destructive space weather events. This work was published in Physics of Plasmas.

More information: Read the paper:

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