The sun is constantly spewing stuff at us, and by stuff I mean magnetic fields, electrons, protons, and some times other ions. When this stuff which we call the solar wind (SW) and interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) collides with our, Earth's, magnetic field, you can get a geomagnetic storm, or sometimes just a substorm. Think large global hurricane, or "just" a tornado. A storm is likely to cause more damage globally here on Earth where as a substorm is more likely to just affect the polar regions. Granted if you are affected by either one, it can be bad, and/or beautiful. Lloyds of London put together a great package on some of the risks of space weather which can be found here. The photo above of the aurora shows just a fraction of the beauty that these storms can produce. The aurora are 3-D structures that move and change relatively quickly and perhaps my favorite way to view them is vicariously through the international space station... Some day I'll have to try to make it up there.
Space physicists attempt to understand and ultimately predict when space weather will effect technology (or when it's best to go outside to look for the aurora which is a beautiful side benefit). We have only been able to get in situ measurements, or measurements at the source, since 1957 when Sputnik was launched. Since then we've had many other satellite missions, and there has been a large increase in ground based instrumentation to study space weather. Of course as always with science, with more data comes answers, but normally also with it more questions.
Although we've been looking at space for thousands of years, we've only been able to look in space for less than a century. Although we've made huge strides in our understanding of this new environment, we still have a long way to go. It makes it fun and interesting. Some physicist work on the edge of our physical understanding, We work at the edge of space just trying to figure out what all is out there, how it works, and how it all fits together. It's an adventure every day and each new data set holds a new mystery! I really love my job, I think it's the best one in the world.
Here are some fun space physics links.
- The BARREL Blog: Keep up with what's going on with BARREL
- Magneto-mini golf: Learn about how particles move in Earth's magnetic field.
- Magneto-bowling: Learn about how lines of charge can affect a particle's path
- Space Weather: Stay up to date with the latest space weather.
- Lloyds of London report on Space Weather Risks: A great report on the importance of understanding space weather and it's potential risks.
- Space Weather at NOAA: Another great tool to look at the current space weather.
- Wonk Blog - When Space weather attacks!: - A great article by Brad Plumber on what could happen with a large geomagnetic storm.
- The Exploratorium: The best museum in the world (They let you play with all the exhibits!) has a great website on what space weather is.
- Web-videos from MIT: Web videos from MIT Haystack Observatory about space weather.