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Expanse Supercomputer Used to Illustrate the Future of Solar Storms

Predictive Science Inc. team showcases mild solar activity for the next decade

Published November 7, 2022

Given how reliant society is on technology, like GPS, understanding the current state of the sun and its extended atmosphere – including the solar wind – is crucial for predicting the likely consequences of major solar storms. Solar eclipses, like this one that occurred on December 4, 2021, provide insight into better understanding of the sun. This model allowed the research team at PSI, led by Dr. Cooper Downs, to reconstruct both in situ measurements (data collected directly at the location of the spacecraft) as well as remote solar observations from different locations in the heliosphere, including the Earth. The image, a computed X-ray emission during the eclipse, was created from a high-resolution simulation, which emphasizes the location of hot (above two million Kelvin) plasma in the corona and provides crucial constraints on the physics used to heat the corona.  Credit: Predictive Science Incorporated (PSI)

By Katya Sumwalt (SDSC Intern) and Kimberly Mann Bruch (SDSC Senior Writer)

The science of heliophysics examines the sun and its connection to the solar system, including its influence on space, the planets, and more. A team of researchers from Predictive Science Incorporated (PSI) – a San Diego-based company whose research programs focus on models and methods to help answer scientific questions about the physics of the sun – recently used Expanse at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at UC San Diego to investigate future space weather.

Wielding Expanse’s vast computing power and a great deal of solar wind observations, the team was able to model the structure and evolution of the sun’s outer atmosphere. Their results, which were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, show that solar activity is likely to remain relatively mild over the next decade.

“Every 11 years, the sun goes through a cycle of changing solar radiation, sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections,” said PSI Research Scientist Pete Riley, first author of the study. “Understanding how the sun’s magnetic field drives these changes is a fundamental goal for heliophysics.”

The PSI study, which relied on both observations of the solar wind as well as their interpretation using the results of global numerical models – run on Expanse – suggested that the sun has been entering an ever lower state of activity. “If this foreshadows what will happen during the current solar cycle, it suggests that space weather effects will not be as dramatic over the next few years as they have been in more active cycles of the space era,” Riley said. 

Next Steps

According to Riley, this recent study provided a number of interesting “launch points” for the research team’s future work. “One area that we’d like to focus on is improving the model inputs and parameters to provide a better agreement with the observations,” he said. “Our models have been developed over many decades, but have not been fine-tuned to quantitatively reproduce the observations from the last cycle.”

A major part of the researchers’ current modelling efforts is to support NASA’s Parker Solar Probe’s mission – including getting closer to the sun than any other spacecraft – which will allow scientists to learn even more about the energy and heat flow of the sun as well as assist with predictions of the magnetic connectivity. Riley said that PSI’s recent study helps further this overall goal.