Irish solar physicist seeks to improve space weather forecasts

12 Sep 2014

Dr Sophie Murray, space weather research scientist with the Met Office in the UK

Dr Sophie Murray is taking a close look at the sun to better predict the ‘space weather’ that can affect us on Earth.

We all know you should never look directly at the sun. But by looking at close-up images and magnetic field data from our local fiery star, Dr Sophie Murray is figuring out how to better predict events at the sun’s surface that can have a knock-on effect on Earth.

And now, the space weather update …

Space weather has become a hot topic of late, according to Murray, who is a space weather research scientist with the Met Office in the UK.

“The impact of space weather has really become apparent in the last few years, and it covers the changing environmental conditions in near-Earth space, which in turn can affect Earth,” she explains. “Those conditions can change on quite a short-term time scale because of solar wind released from the sun, as well as solar eruptions, such as flares and coronal mass ejections.”

In fact, ‘severe space weather’ is listed on the UK National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, so Murray and colleagues at the Met Office are working on refining the forecasts and guidance for regions and industries that could be affected.

In particular, solar storms, solar flares of radiation and coronal mass ejections of matter exploding from the sun’s surface can potentially affect satellites and other orbiting spacecraft as well as Earth’s power grids, aviation, GPS and communications networks.

Solar flares can reach Earth within minutes, while the effects of coronal mass ejections take longer to hit. But knowing when a bout of bumpy space weather is due means safeguarding steps can be taken, and this is where forecasting comes in, explains Murray.

“With solar flares, the initial energy release hits (the Earth’s atmosphere) in 8.5 minutes, and then particles arrive within tens of minutes,” she says. “This can cause damage to spacecraft, but if you know it’s coming then the spacecraft can be switched off to reduce the risk.”

So her research seeks to develop a better understanding of how solar activity can lead to events such as flares, and to help refine models for use by the 24/7 forecasting service at the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre.

A close look at the sun – and Earth

To get a really good look at what is happening on the sun’s surface, Murray uses data from ground-based telescopes and from instruments on spacecraft, such as NASA’s STEREO twins and Solar Dynamics Observatory mission and JAXA’s Hinode.

She is particularly interested in magnetic field data from regions of activity that develop and move across the sun’s surface, and she uses ‘coronagraphs’ to see the explosions being sent out into space from the sun, she explains.  

Murray has also been involved with the EU-funded ATMOP project to better model the effects of space weather in a part of the Earth’s atmosphere called the thermosphere, about 90km above sea level, where solar activity can increase drag on satellites.

A path to the sun

Murray, who is from Naas, Co Kildare, excelled at maths in school and always wanted to work on something related to space. She chose to study physics and astrophysics in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and completed a master’s degree in space science and engineering at University College London before returning to TCD to complete a PhD with supervisors Prof Peter Gallagher and Dr Shaun Bloomfield.

Murray’s PhD work discovered tell-tale signs in zones of activity on the sun’s surface that could hint a flare was about to erupt.

“We don’t really understand the processes involved with solar flaring yet, so I was looking at much higher resolution images (from Hinode) of these complex regions than we ever had previously,” she explains. “Looking at that small scale you could really see changes in the field up to hours before the flares were occurring.”

This week, Murray has been sharing some of those results in a poster at the 14th European Solar Physics Meeting (ESPM-14), which is running in TCD.

Solar physics shines

Murray likes that her research can have a practical impact on improving space weather forecasts, and she enjoys the collaborative nature of the work.

“Solar physics is at the cutting edge of scientific research,” she says. “We have seen big results coming out in the last five to 10 years and it’s really important to show your results to the world.”

She welcomes that many of the data sources she uses for her research are available to everyone online, and she has been spreading the word about a ‘citizen science’ project developed at TCD called Sunspotter that invites everyone to help classify images of sunspots by ranking them (but be warned, it’s addictive!). “I think schools could probably be making more use of these kinds of free resources,” she says.

Meanwhile, Murray will today update the ESPM-14 conference (Twitter hashtag #ESPM14) about space weather work at the Met Office, because she wants more scientists to be aware of the research and work together. “We want to do collaboration rather than replication,” she says.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication