And now here’s the weather . . . in space

The UK’s Met Office are branching out to forecast the weather in space and on other planets, and could even discover signs of alien life. Weathermen are adapting their predictive tools to help understand the impact of storms on the Sun as well as what goes on in the atmospheres of planets around other stars.

Impression of a hot Jupiter orbiting another star
Impression of a hot Jupiter orbiting another star. Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

The experts will extend forecasting upwards to include the thermosphere, a region of the atmosphere stretching from 90 to 600 km (90 – 380 miles) above the Earth’s surface. This is the zone where space weather events are common as the magnetic field surrounding our planet is buffeted by particles streaming in from explosions on the Sun.

Dr David Jackson, of the Met Office, told the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester: “Space weather can affect the aviation and power industries, as well as a whole range of activities that rely on GPS timing and positioning, radio communication or satellite-based observations.

“To develop a more accurate and useful advanced-warning system for space weather, we need to develop a system of interconnected models that describe the whole domain – the conditions on the Sun, interplanetary space, the layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, all the way down to the Earth’s surface.”

A second team of researchers are adapting the Unified Model devised by the Met Office to help them explore weather conditions in the atmospheres of exoplanets orbiting other stars.

Dr David Acreman, an astrophysicist at Exeter University, told the meeting: “The Met Office has developed a sophisticated tool for Earth weather forecasting and climate studies. It could be of vital importance in interpreting the wealth of observational data on extra-solar planets we expect to come within the next decade.

“Most of the hundreds of extra-solar planets discovered to date are gas giants orbiting very close to their host star. The day side of the planet is much hotter than the night side and this temperature difference causes high speed winds to flow. Although these conditions are unlike anything seen on Earth, the Unified Model is capable of handling these extreme circumstances.”

In the longer term, the project will also study the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets, where conditions may resemble those found in the early or present day Solar System. Results could potentially reveal the presence of a biosphere and signs of life.

In more space weather news, scientists at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales, have discovered a towering tornado in the atmosphere of the Sun. You can read my account of this fascinating discovery on the website Sen.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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