Satellites launched into space could send back improved warnings of dangerous solar storms thanks to a breakthrough in the way scientists use space weather measurements.
Solar storms can pose a threat to power grids and satellites orbiting Earth such as GPS.
Experts from the University of Reading have found that using satellite data that is less reliable but returns to Earth quickly can be used to improve the accuracy of solar wind forecasts – harmful streams of charged particles sent from the sun – by nearly 50%.
Lead researcher Harriet Turner, from the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology, said: “We know lots about how to prepare for storms that form on Earth, but we need to improve our forecasts of the dangerous weather we get from space.
“Space weather threatens our technology-focused way of life as it can cause power grids to fail, damage satellites, such as GPS, and even make astronauts ill.
“Our research has shown that using rapid satellite measurements to forecast space weather is effective.
“By sending spacecraft far from Earth, we can use this new technique to get better solar storm predictions and ensure we are prepared for what’s to come.”
Simon Machin, Met Office space weather manager, said: “This is a great example of the value that can result through our collaboration with academia.
“By pulling through scientific research into the operational domain, improved space weather forecasting will ultimately enhance our nation’s ability to prepare for and mitigate against space weather events.”
Scientists need to forecast the solar wind conditions on Earth in order to predict space weather.
They do this by combining computer simulations with observations from space to estimate what space weather will be like. This is known as data assimilation.
However, the best quality observations are only available days after they are made, as they are processed on the ground and cleaned, meaning forecasts take longer to achieve.
Researchers tried to get the forecasts quicker by using near-real-time (NRT) data.
This data undergoes no processing or cleaning, making it less accurate but available within a couple of hours.
According to the study, forecasts produced using the NRT data still provide reliable predictions and allow greater warning time.
This could enable authorities to better prepare for power failures that cost trillions of US dollars over a century in the US and Europe, researchers suggest.
The scientists behind this new study say using the new technique with upcoming space missions will enable better forecasts.
Later this decade, the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch Vigil, a first-of-its-kind mission to monitor potentially hazardous solar activity using a number of UK-built instruments.
By launching the spacecraft into a position 60 degrees behind Earth in longitude, the Met Office will be able to improve space weather forecasts by using data assimilation of the NRT solar wind data.
Experts hope the unique location will allow researchers to see the solar wind that will later arrive at Earth, maximising forecast accuracy and warning time.
The findings are published in the Space Weather journal.