Birkeland Lecture 2015: Our Connection to Space

Dr. Terry Onsager, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA/Space Weather Prediction Center, USA.

Human civilization’s connection to space has evolved profoundly over the past centuries and millennia. For thousands of years our ancestors viewed the aurora and sunspots and acted upon beliefs of messages hidden in these heavenly signs. With the development of sophisticated instruments and the discovery of physical laws, a new era of understanding emerged. People found themselves connected to a vast, natural laboratory, able to measure directly eruptions on the Sun and energetic particles from throughout the galaxy.

It was within this era of understanding that Kristian Birkeland accomplished his pioneering work. Among his many discoveries was the profound and direct connection between Earth and space through the flow of electrical currents. The century since Birkeland’s discoveries has shown remarkable advances in our ability to observe, to understand, and ultimately to predict the complex physical processes linking Earth to space.

Most recently, the development of modern technology and the global integration of our economic and security infrastructures have connected our daily lives to space in ways previously unimaginable. The electric power grid, air and space travel, satellite operations, and the ubiquitous global navigation systems are all impacted by the dynamics of the space environment, collectively referred to as “space weather.” We are now faced with the challenging imperative to reach beyond our scientific understanding and apply our knowledge, both to safeguard our modern infrastructure and to enable future exploration and utilization of space.

The modern challenge introduced by our growing connection to space now requires a new level of coordination around the globe. Efforts are underway within national governments, private industry, and United Nations organizations to advance our research, coordinate our observing and service networks, and develop civil contingency plans for the possibility of extreme space weather events. Although still at an early stage, exciting progress is being made to build on scientific achievements and to develop the necessary prediction and alerting capabilities. This will ultimately lead to a more effective utilization of space and stronger connections here on Earth.

Published Aug. 25, 2015 9:31 AM - Last modified Nov. 20, 2019 10:21 AM