The USTAR Space Weather Center at Utah State University recently launched an iPhone application for visualizing real-time space weather. Available through Apple for $1.99, the app shows how space weather disturbances affect the ionosphere. The “Space Wx” application is the first space weather application developed for the iPhone. Corporations, such as those who own large oil rigs and commercial aviation, are part of the customer-base for the product and will be able to see how high frequency radio communications, GPS accuracy, power grids and aviation are being affected by space weather in real-time so that they may avoid costly mistakes—like drilling in the wrong place because of GPS coordinates that are off by as much as a football field. Space weather disturbances in the ionosphere affect the Earth, satellites and GPS systems in a number of ways. A disturbed ionosphere compromises satellite communications because rapid fluctuation of electrons cause random delays in the communication signal and result in lost receiver locks. The same rapid electron fluctuations cause GPS receivers to lose signal lock or experience delays that result in greater uncertainty and error for precision measurements such as road grading, GPS-guided farming and emergency location services. Additionally, high frequency communications may be interrupted as they reflect off the ionosphere to reach sites over the horizon. If the ionosphere is disturbed, the radio waves will encounter unexpected reflection directions, which impact communications for emergency and military personnel who rely on HF radios for communication in remote locations. Often used as the back-up system for more complex technologies, i.e. satellite communications, this interruption can be critical for those in dangerous rescue situations. “Disturbances in the ionosphere affect everything,” said Robert Schunk, director of the Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences and a member of the USTAR Space Weather team at USU. “In addition to HF radio communication and GPS communication technology, power grids and aviation are two areas where commercialization of space weather forecasting technology will be most beneficial to the public.” According to Schunk, technology developed by the Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences and the USU USTAR Space Weather Center will allow for flights over the polar regions, an advancement that will save significant dollars in fuel costs and result in shorter flight time. Forecasting ionospheric disturbances is critical in such cases as disturbances would require planes to land and refuel to compensate for the extra miles required in-air as the plane travels around the region. Additionally, solar charged particles that are imbedded in the material from solar coronal mass ejections can interact with the Earth’s natural electric field and instantaneously increase the ground-induced-current. The result can be detrimental to power grids running at nearly full capacity where the current spikes can disable or damage transformers, resulting in power losses and higher costs for companies and customers. Kent Tobiska, who joined the team in fall 2009 as director for the Space Weather Center, said that understanding space weather and compensating for ionospheric disturbances can lead to improved communications and safety for emergency personnel. “Space weather forecasting makes it possible to solve communication problems on Earth by closing the loop,” said Tobiska. “We are moving beyond the exploration of the technology and now solving problems created by ionospheric disturbances.” The costs to the U.S. Government, including the Department of Defense, are huge. The U.S. Government spends $500 million each year to mitigate the effects of ionospheric disturbances. The USTAR Space Weather Center has developed complex forecasting systems and mathematical formulas to compensate for these disturbances that are available on a contract basis. These systems are for specialized groups because of their complexity. Technologies being developed by the USTAR Space Weather Center at USU are the best in the world, according to Tobiska. “There is nothing else in the United States or in the world that is comparable to what the USTAR initiative is doing in making space weather an integral information layer within broader technology systems,” said Tobiska. The USTAR Space Weather Center at USU was established in 2008 to work in conjunction with the already established Center for Atmospheric and Space Sciences at USU, began commercializing technology for the mainstream in 2009. The USTAR initiative is a long-term, state-funded investment to strengthen Utah’s “knowledge economy” and generate high-paying jobs. Funded in March 2006 by the State Legislature, USTAR is based on three program areas. The first area involves funding for strategic investments at the University of Utah and Utah State University to recruit world-class researchers. The second area is to build state-of-the-art interdisciplinary facilities at these institutions for the innovation teams. The third program area involves teams that work with companies and entrepreneurs across the State to promote science, innovation, and commercialization activities.For more information, go to (www.innovationutah.com) or follow (http://twitter.com/Innovationutah). For USU news, visit (http://economicdevelopment.usu.edu) or follow (http://twitter.com/USU_USTAR). For more information on the USTAR Space Weather Center at USU, visit the Web site: (http://spaceweather.usu.edu/).
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