Apps Bring Space Weather Down to Earth
SAN FRANCISCO – Want to see our violent, unpredictable sun the way a powerful NASA space telescope does? Now there's an app for that.
This week, a Colorado-based company introduced its free SDO app for Android smartphones, which lets users access nearly real-time images and videos captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft. SDO is the latest in a series of apps that drop space weather information into the smartphones of scientists and regular folks alike.
The sun drives space weather — the changing environmental conditions in near-Earth space — with its variable emissions of energy and charged particles. The weather can get ugly: Huge electromagnetic storms on the sun can interfere with radio and GPS signals here on Earth.
The SDO app, which is available for smartphones that use Google’s Android operating system, should help researchers keep tabs on the sun's churnings and roilings as they happen, according to the president of the company that developed it. [Gallery: Amazing Sun Photos]
"Scientists are using it," Geoff Crowley, who heads Atmospheric and Space Technology Research Associates (ASTRA), told SPACE.com here Friday (Dec. 17) at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. NASA commissioned ASTRA to develop the SDO app, he added.
Last year, ASTRA introduced its SpaceWeather app, which taps into the company's computer network to model and characterize space weather, as well as make predictions about conditions an hour into the future. Like SDO, it's an Android app.
"We produce global maps of space weather, and they're operating in real time," Crowley said. "We're basically covering the waterfront when it comes to space weather."
SpaceWeather has been downloaded 11,000 times, Crowley added, and it's used by researchers as well as laypeople who are interested in space weather and its impacts. [Video: Huge Explosion Rocks the Sun]
SpaceWeather isn't the only game in town. Last year, Utah State University's Space Weather Center developed the SpaceWx app, for Apple's iPhone. A few other iPhone apps, created by different groups, followed, including Solar Monitor, SWx Monitor and 3D Sun.
Making real-time space-weather information easily available can have all sorts of practical benefits, Crowley said, including helping people plan rocket launches and avoid interruptions in communication and navigation capabilities.
But there's also the gee-whiz factor, which shouldn't be discounted.
"The resolution is phenomenal," Crowley said, checking out a picture of the sun delivered to his smartphone by the SDO app. "Looking at these images, it's just amazing."