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Scientists Observe First Ever 'Space Hurricane'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This is Lulu's log - stardate March 7, 2021 - where we explore matters of space, the stars and the universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Today, the space hurricane. In 2014, a massive storm of electrons 600 miles wide swirled counterclockwise above the North Pole for eight hours. Scientists only recently proved its existence and published findings this month in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers at the University of Reading in the U.K., led by another team at Shandong University in China, came up with the report. Mike Lockwood is a professor at Reading. And he joins us now from Oxford. Welcome to the program.

MIKE LOCKWOOD: Hello there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about the moment you and your colleague in China discovered the Earth had experienced a space hurricane.

LOCKWOOD: Well, it took about a year, all told, for us to work out what on earth was going on. This was a very quiet period. The geomagnetic field wasn't shaking around. The solar wind was incredibly slow. The magnetic field that normally causes bad space weather was in the quiet orientation. And we were very puzzled. And then colleagues in China started producing numerical simulations from a big numerical space weather model. And that began to firm up our ideas. And eventually, my Chinese colleagues came up with the idea of calling it a space hurricane. And I'll be honest I thought that was a bit cheesy. But it's not a bad analogy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I mean, we've heard about things like solar flares affecting satellite communications. Do space hurricanes affect us?

LOCKWOOD: We're looking into the implications now. We do think it probably affects satellite communications and satellite navigation over the poles. We think this is a big change in the way energy is deposited into the upper atmosphere. And we think that might have effects on orbits, particularly spacecraft orbits, which move around a little bit, but, actually, even more, space junk. And that's what we're particularly looking at - is how space junk is reorganized by an event like this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why would it be important how a space hurricane interacted with space junk?

LOCKWOOD: A good example would be the International Space Station. That has a shield. It's got a Whipple shield to protect it from space junk. And that can handle small bits. But a big bit of remnant of a satellite or something - it couldn't cope with that at all. And the only way that they can deal with this is to do dodging maneuvers. So you have to know when to dodge, basically, and how to dodge. So if you know more about the event, then you can work out how it is changing, you know, almost in real time. And that gives you a bit more confidence in your predictions about when you need to maneuver the space station out the way of something nasty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think that there have been other space hurricanes? And do you think you can predict them in the future?

LOCKWOOD: We probably missed this for a long time because there was no flare. There was no massive geomagnetic activity. All the other things that normally go with large energy deposition in our upper atmosphere - they were missing. But now we know what one looks like. We'll look for more, obviously. And then we'll know how frequent they are and things like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And final question - what does it feel like to sort of discover something like this?

LOCKWOOD: It's always a nice feeling. Now, I'm a sage, old guy. I've been around a while. What's really nice is Qing-He, the lead author. I mentored him when he first came over to the West to learn about space. It's really nice to see a young scientist breaking through like this. And he's done a good job. And I'm proud of him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Professor Mike Lockwood from the University of Reading, thank you very much.

LOCKWOOD: You're more than welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.