By Published: Sept. 20, 2023

A new center led by CU Boulder will undertake research to make the region of space between Earth and the moon a little safer—potentially helping satellites navigate through this tumultuous and sometimes hazardous environment. 

This summer, NASA announced that it had selected four Space Weather Centers of Excellence, including the Space Weather Operational Readiness Development (SWORD) center at CU Boulder. As its name suggests, the nearly $10 million center will offer some powerful protection for the planet: SWORD research will seek to help scientists develop more accurate and timely conditions of the “space weather” hundreds of miles above the surface of Earth—where impacts from solar storms can increase the risk of satellite collisions and interfere with communications and navigation. 

Tom Berger headshot

Tom Berger

SWORD emerged from the Space Weather Technology, Research and Education Center (SWx TREC), which was funded through the CU Boulder Grand Challenge initiative “Our Space. Our Future.” SWORD is a university-wide effort, tapping expertise from the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences; Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES); and Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP).

“This important award is the result of years of investment and collaboration across our campus,” said Massimo Ruzzene, vice chancellor for research and innovation and dean of the institutes at CU Boulder. “With added contributions from our renowned research institutes, our College of Engineering and Applied Science and partners beyond our campus, this kind of impact is only possible through the cross-disciplinary approach that makes CU Boulder so unique.”

The center also includes researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) High Altitude Observatory, the University of Alaska, University of Iowa, University of Michigan and the NASA Langley Research Center. The project is a testament to CU Boulder’s decades of research leadership in investigating the deep connections between Earth and the sun. 

In emphasizing the need for the SWORD center, Tom Berger, the principal investigator, noted that forecasting weather in space isn’t as easy as forecasting it on the ground in Boulder. 

“The space weather system is more complex,” said Berger, executive director of SWx TREC. “You've got magnetic fields. You've got electric currents and plasmas. The solar radiation is changing all the time in ways that really affect the atmosphere.”

Through SWORD, he and his colleagues will conduct research to improve the computer simulations, or models, that scientists use to forecast those shifts. That includes how those models can pull in real-time observations from space. Berger hopes that one day these tools could help operators protect satellites in orbit in the same way that ship captains use weather reports to steer clear of dangers at sea. 

Safe harbor

The consequences of fluctuations in space weather can be serious. In February 2022, dozens of satellites in orbit around Earth were lost during what scientists call a “geomagnetic storm.” 

Man sits in front of rows of computer screens, some showing images of the sun

A scientist monitors space weather from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder. (Credit: NOAA)

Berger explained that Earth’s upper atmosphere doesn’t stay still during these storms. Instead, it expands or shrinks by hundreds of miles depending on radiation coming from the sun and electrical currents in the ionosphere—almost as if the planet itself is breathing. Several days before the satellites’ launch, the sun experienced a particularly large magnetic eruption, ultimately causing Earth’s atmosphere to puff up just as the satellites reached low Earth orbit. They were dragged back into the atmosphere where they burned up on re-entry.

Today, scientists at the Space Weather Prediction Center led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast these kinds of events using a suite of models. The tools seek to replicate the complex physics in space, entirely from a computer screen on Earth. But that isn’t easy.

“One of the challenges in space weather modeling is that you don’t have one model. You have many separate models,” Berger said. “We use one model for the sun and solar wind, one model for Earth's magnetic field and another for the upper atmosphere and ionosphere and so on.” 

The team’s work could, ultimately, help the Space Weather Prediction Center build better tools for making up-to-date forecasts of conditions in space. The research may also benefit U.S. Space Force and civilian space traffic managers as they keep track of the ever-growing number of satellites and debris objects in orbit.  

As a start, SWORD researchers will lay the groundwork to help these models work better together. Berger added that weather forecasts are so accurate on Earth, in part, because scientists are constantly feeding them with real-world data—such as readings of barometric pressures, wind speeds and more. He and his colleagues hope to do the same with space weather forecasts, incorporating data from satellites already in orbit. Berger sees a day when satellites can use their GPS navigation data to provide space weather forecasters with up-to-the-minute reports about what’s happening in space.

“Then satellite operators can assess collision risks and plan avoidance maneuvers more reliably, particularly during space weather storms,” he said.