How NASA, NOAA and AI might save the internet from devastating solar storms

A June 2013 solar flare on the left side of the sun, which later sent a coronal mass ejection out into space.

A June 2013 solar flare on the left side of the sun, which later sent a coronal mass ejection out into space. NASA/Goddard/SDO

Coronal mass ejections that can occur during the solar maximum are electrically charged, meaning they can easily destroy electrical and computer equipment.

If you are reading this article on the Nextgov/FCW website, then the good news is that the internet has not been destroyed by a powerful solar storm. But the bad news is that devastating space weather is still in the forecast for us and could be arriving any time over the next couple of years.

On the one hand, the scientific community is excited about the approaching solar maximum — the point when the sun’s solar activity is greatest — during which time certain solar activities, as well as events like auroras, will be more easily observable. NASA, for example, has declared a Heliophysics Big Year starting in October and running until December 2024. Over the course of the big year, the agency will sponsor a variety of activities, from sun watching parties to citizen science events, designed to take advantage of the increased sun activity in order to learn more about our home star.

But there is a big potential downside to solar maximums too. During solar maximums, the possibility of large geomagnetic storms increases. During those storms, plumes of superheated plasma gas can be ejected from the sun with such force that they can soar across 93 million miles of space and strike Earth. And because coronal mass ejections are electrically charged, they can easily destroy electrical and computer equipment, even on a large scale. Thankfully, they are rare occurrences, but they do happen.

One of the most well-known solar storm events happened during a solar maximum back in 1859. Known as the Carrigan Event, the coronal mass ejection struck Earth at a time when electrical and communications equipment were still in their infancy. And even so, it caused a lot of damage. Almost the entire telegraph network in the United States and Europe experienced blackouts. Meanwhile, telegraph operators reported getting shocked by their equipment, or that the paper used by their machines would sometimes burst into flames. Some clever telegraph operators removed the batteries from their devices, which were being destroyed by the electrically charged plasma, and were able to send and receive messages using only the power generated by the event itself.

Needless to say, the effects of such an event today, now that the world is fully wired and powered, would be much more devastating. Imagine if an entire section of the world experienced a months-long blackout, or if our computer networks and the internet suddenly stopped working. It’s kind of a nightmare scenario that few people or countries are prepared to deal with.

There is no guarantee that the upcoming solar maximum will produce a violent solar storm or a coronal mass ejection event. Even the normal 11-year cycle of sun intensity is not always predicted accurately. Sometimes it happens after nine years, and sometimes there are up to 14 years between cycles. Scientists are also not always right when predicting the intensity of the events and the resulting storms. Back in 2010, the government was warning that the next solar maximum, expected in 2013, could be devastating. That event did not happen until the following year, in 2014, and turned out to be one of the weakest on record. Realistically, nobody really knows if the pending solar maximum will be a big one, but the possibility that it could be huge is certainly looming.

Earth’s defenses against solar storms

There is not much of anything that we humans can do to prevent solar storms or even shield our planet from their effects. However, with enough warning, power grids and computer equipment could be shut down and protected from the worst effects of an event, only powered back up once the storm has passed. But for that, we need a good early warning system.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center used to rely mostly on a single satellite for solar storm warnings: the Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE. However, following the thankfully mild solar maximum of 2014, the age of the ACE satellite started to become a concern, since it was over 10-years past its operational lifespan at that point. It was given backup in the form of the new DSCOVR Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite in 2015 which now handles the bulk of those prediction duties, although ACE is still used for support activities.

ACE and DSCOVER together watch for corona injections and can provide warnings of approaching solar storms up to an hour before they strike Earth. That is not a lot of time, but if critical infrastructure providers are ready for the warnings — which they might be as the new solar maximum ramps up — it could be enough time to at least power down some of the grids. Even so, a little more time between the warnings and a solar storm’s impact would be helpful.

For that, artificial intelligence might be able to offer a helping hand. A group called the Frontier Development Lab, which is a public-private partnership that includes NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Energy, have been tasking AI with trying to predict pending solar storms before they happen.

According to the team working on the project, the AI was fed data from four previous solar exploration missions — ACEWindIMP-8 and Geotail — as well as information from ground stations around the world that recorded solar storms and events. The AI was tasked with analyzing the conditions on the sun leading up to a solar storm in order to predict future ones.

And by all accounts, the AI was extremely successful at that task. It is now able to accurately predict solar storms up to 30 minutes before they even happen, with forecasts updated every minute until the expected storm occurs. 

“With this AI, it is now possible to make rapid and accurate global predictions and informed decisions in the event of a solar storm, thereby minimizing — or even preventing — devastation to modern society,” said Vishal Upendran of the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in India. Upendran is the lead author of a paper detailing the AI-based project which was recently published in the Space Weather journal.

The code used for the space weather prediction project was made using all open source assets, which Upendran says will allow critical infrastructure providers to modify and integrate it into their individual operations.

While there is not yet any actual defense against solar storms and coronal mass ejections like the one that plagued the telegraph network back in 1859, the new network of satellites backed up by the AI space weather prediction system should at least give us a bit of a warning before a new storm strikes. With that, even if the pending 2024 or 2025 solar maximum produces a devastating solar storm, the event will at least be survivable and somewhat mitigatable, as opposed to a global catastrophe that strikes, quite literally, out of the clear blue sky.  

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys