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16 years of GPS space weather data made publicly available

Tue 31 Jan 2017

Solar flare

Over 16 years of GPS space weather data has been released to the public for the first time, in a bid to help boost understanding around radiation threats to Earth’s satellites, communications networks, and aircraft.

The ‘unprecedented’ collection of data, released by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, comes from space weather sensors onboard Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, which measure charged particles in Earth’s magnetic field.

The detailed measurements are expected to provide an invaluable resource for space weather research and for understanding how best to protect our critical infrastructure.

“Space weather monitoring instruments developed at Los Alamos have been fielded on GPS satellites for decades,” explained Los Alamos program manager, Marc Kippen.

“Today, 23 of the nation’s more than 30 on-orbit GPS satellites carry these instruments. When you multiply the number of satellites collecting data with the number of years they’ve been doing it, it totals more than 167 satellite years. It’s really an unprecedented amount of information.”

Kippen added that prior to the public release, GPS data has long remained a U.S. military asset, with a “general hesitancy to broadcast even fairly innocuous things out to the broad community.”

Extreme weather events in space have been seen to greatly impact the safety and stability of infrastructure in and around Earth. For example, the threat of increased exposure to radiation following a large solar flare could mean that flights need to be diverted.

Likewise, changes in the plasma or magnetic field structures in the sun’s atmosphere and high-speed solar winds could take out large areas of the electric power grid – with potential disturbances to air traffic control, water supplies, and even life-saving medical equipment.

Los Alamos also referred to operational threats to satellites and navigation systems, such as magnetic disturbances causing loss of communication with, and control of satellites.

Currently, scientists are unable to predict when such extreme weather events will occur, their magnitude nor their potential impact. Now, the release of the Los Alamos will allow the scientific community to develop new studies to help answer these uncertainties and build space weather forecasting models.

The public release of the GPS data was processed under the terms of a White House Executive Order signed in October 2016. The offering marks years of collaborative work between the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Security Council.


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