Our Sun lights up the solar system, but it’s as not calm or predictable as it may seem. Flares and explosions called coronal mass ejections unleash fast-moving particles and radiation that pose dangers to spacecraft and astronauts alike. Yaireska Collado-Vega leads a team at NASA’s Goddard Spacecraft Center that is studying the solar weather environment so that robots and people exploring space can be protected. In this episode of Gravity Assist, she describes the excitement and challenges of understanding space weather, and how she got to be a NASA scientist.
Jim Green:When we look into space, it looks black and empty. But that turns out to be completely wrong. In space, huge, invisible storms can occur.
Yaireska Collado-Vega: You don’t want a mission to be damaged by the Sun’s activity. Because that would mean that you lose every single data that that mission can give you.
Jim Green:Hi, I’m Jim Green. And this is a new season of Gravity Assist. We’re going to explore the inside workings of NASA in making these fabulous missions happen.
Jim Green: I’m here with Dr. Yaireska Collado-Vega and she is the director of the Moon to Mars Space Weather Analysis Office at the Goddard Space Flight Center. She is an expert in predicting space weather. Welcome, Yari, to Gravity Assist.
Yaireska Collado-Vega: Thank you so much for having me. Jim, I’m so glad to be here.
Jim Green:To start off, what exactly is space weather?
Yaireska Collado-Vega: Space weathers are the conditions in space that are mostly dominated by the Sun’s activity. So the Sun is our star, right? That’s why we have life on Earth. But the Sun can have solar storms that come in different types, like for example, coronal mass ejections, solar flares. And also this activity can actually accelerate particles to fractions of the speed of light. This kind of activity can cause what we call space weather effects that here on Earth can actually include problems with communications, GPS signal loss, and in the most dangerous types, it can actually cause power grid disruptions.
Yaireska Collado-Vega: Now, when we talk about humans in space, those energetic particles that are accelerated to fractions of the speed of light can cause a hazardous environment to the astronauts. And those particles also can cause problems to the instrumentation of the satellites in space. So it can actually damage our technology, the technologies that we use every day.
Jim Green: Well, you know, the Sun is really pretty far away. And so as you say, it goes through a variety of changes, creating really enormous changes in the wind that it produces. And, and so these events propagate from the Sun outward into our solar system. And so how long does it take for those kinds of events to hit the Earth?
Yaireska Collado-Vega: It depends on each event. Each event has a different timeline. For example, if you talk about solar flare, when we see a solar flare, this signal here on Earth is already here. It travels to the speed of light, it’s eight minutes, that’s all it takes. So flares are something that is very difficult to predict. So we do have some models that try to do predictions of solar flares. Now when we talk about coronal mass ejections, that’s different, because we’re talking about big explosions of particles coming from the solar corona. And depending on the speed, they take about two to four days to arrive to Earth. And then if you talk about solar energetic particles, now we’re talking about fractions of the speed of light, so you can have an event arriving on Earth in half an hour, or in hours.
Jim Green: Wow. So how hard is it to predict when these flares and coronal mass ejections occur?
Yaireska Collado-Vega:It is it is difficult. We use a lot of models. We use different observatories. For example, we use the Solar Dynamical Observatory to look at the Sun’s Earth-facing disk in different wavelengths. So you’re actually looking at the Sun in different temperatures, different layers, so you can see more what is happening in in the solar corona.
Yaireska Collado-Vega:Now, to see a coronal mass ejection though, you need a coronagraph, which is an artificial eclipse. You’re actually blocking the Sun to be able to see what’s coming out of it. So it’s not an easy way to predict this kind of events. And we don’t have that many observatories as we would like to have. And then when we see the coronal mass ejections from the coronagraph, we have tools that we use to analyze and have measurements of those coronal mass ejections.
Yaireska Collado-Vega: For example, speed, width, direction, and those are the measurements that we put in into the simulations that could give us a prediction on when and where those coronal mass ejections are going to impact. Now SEPs, there are different models that can actually try to do predictions of SEPs, solar energetic particles. And these are actually trying to understand when the event is going to happen, the intensity of the event, and the duration of the events. And it’s not easy, and we need more data sets to actually be able to improve this kind of models.
Jim Green: Well, it sounds like you do a lot of computer work with a lot of models that are going on. But once these events leave the Sun, do they change as they propagate out into the solar wind and through the solar system?
Yaireska Collado-Vega:They do. In terms of solar flares, you know, it depends on the direction of where you are. It’s an abrupt eruption of radiation, right? So depends on where you are. If you’re here on Earth, whether your observer is, it depends on where you are whether you actually will get more affected. Now when you talk about coronal mass ejections, you know, depending on the eruption, per se, that’s what you will have erupting. And some eruptions accelerate, some decelerate, some actually rotate. So it’s a very unpredictable environment. And it’s actually really fun to do. And it’s something that I actually tell my team all the time, like, this is something that is fairly new in the field of physics, right?
Yaireska Collado-Vega:This is something that we just started to do, starting in the 1950s, let’s just say. And then when we analyze these things, we comprehend how dynamic the Sun can be, and how many effects it could have in the different technology and the instrumentation that we use. So my team, the main goal is to support human exploration activities. But we also have a secondary goal that we protect NASA missions. It doesn’t matter where a coronal mass ejection is going, we analyze it, and we make sure that we have those predictions. And we can send those prediction to the NASA missions, so they can protect themselves from the activity.
Jim Green: Well, what typically happens then when a CME, this coronal mass ejection, hits the Earth or the Earth’s magnetosphere?
Yaireska Collado-Vega: When the CME actually arrives at Earth, then it will actually create what we call like a punch. It will actually punch the Earth magnetic field and that actually causes while we call a geomagnetic storm. There’s different things that you have to take into consideration when you talk about the effects depending on the velocity of the coronal mass ejection and depending on the direction if it hits face on or if it’s actually a glancing blow all, or, you know, the magnetic field inside the coronal mass ejection is also really, really important because if you have a magnetic field inside the CME that is actually southward, which means that’s pointing down, that means that you’re going to have a higher probability to have a higher geomagnetic storm because you will have what we call magnetic reconnection. And it’s actually a transfer of energy that happens from that magnetic field to the particles.
Yaireska Collado-Vega:When you have higher geomagnetic storms, that’s when you get really, really nice auroras, and I love auroras. I haven’t seen one in person though. When you have the auroras, they’re amazing. I call them the rainbows of space weather. But when auroras happen, that means that you have a high activity happening on the magnetic field of the Earth caused by the Sun. And this will mostly be caused by that CME arriving and causing that geomagnetic storm.
Jim Green: Right. Every time the magnetosphere gets hit with a coronal mass ejection, we’re going to have aurorae. Really fantastic. Well, what kind of instruments do we need to really monitor space weather, and where do we put them in space?
Yaireska Collado-Vega: We need different types of instruments. For example, we need imagers that will actually be able to see the Sun in different wavelengths, UV for example, and then we also need coronagraphs that will actually let us see the coronal mass ejections being ejected from the solar corona. Not only that, we also need magnetograms, we need to understand how the magnetic field the Sun changes, because depending on how that magnetic field changes, and evolves, that’s how you have to have the activity happen. So we need different observatories. And we use right now the Solar Dynamics Observatory, we use the STEREO mission, we use SOHO, which is more than 25 years old, and we still use it.
Jim Green: So why is space weather so important to know relative to the other spacecraft that are orbiting the Earth or tracking out into the solar system, going to places? Does space weather affect these missions?
Yaireska Collado-Vega:It does, for example, the solar energetic particles that we spoke about, those particles can cause instrumentation damage. And that doesn’t mean only on Earth, it means in actually all the space. So when you have a event happening on the Sun that is towards a mission, you have to have those predictions so the mission can try to protect from the Sun’s activity. So it actually affects every mission that we have out there. And we have to be able to predict it because you don’t want a mission to be damaged by the Sun’s activity. Because that would mean that you lose every single data that that mission can give you. So as a NASA entity, my team is, you know, trying to protect those NASA missions across the whole solar system.
Jim Green:Well, you know, as humans, leave lower Earth orbit, go to the moon and live and work on a planetary surface, then we’re going on to Mars, should astronauts be concerned about space whether?
Yaireska Collado-Vega: The same solar energetic particles, those are the one that created the high radiation environment that could be hazardous to the astronauts. So right now, for example, we have astronauts in the International Space Station. The International Space Station is nside the magnetic field of the Earth, so that means that they have that shield. But now when we talk about getting those humans out of that shield, now we have to take into consideration that they’re going to be exposed to a higher radiation dosage. So now we have to be able to predict better those solar energetic particle events, so we can actually communicate that to the astronauts so they can get protected from those events.
Yaireska Collado-Vega: And we, our team are working really close with the Johnson Space Center space radiation analysis group, to be able for us to communicate what the SEP models predict, so they can actually communicate that to the astronauts. It’s a very intense work. (laughs) There’s a lot of stress. (laughs) But it’s something that is really exciting because you’re protecting those astronauts out in space. And it will actually help us go further than the Moon later on in the future, going to Mars, because we’re preparing now to go to the Moon, but eventually we will also calibrate all these models to be able to predict that kind of event at Mars.
Jim Green:Well, indeed from SOHO as you say, we can see these CMEs coming. When we see them, what can we do?
Yaireska Collado-Vega:So in terms of my team, we actually send the analysis to the missions, and they decide what to do. But in terms of what they can do, they can actually try to not face the storm. They can maneuver the spacecraft not to face the storm, or they can put instrumentation in safe mode. The last thing that you would like or want to do is to turn anything off, because when you do that, you never know if it’s going to be turned on again.
Yaireska Collado-Vega:Now, when we talk about astronauts, then we’re talking about shielding. There’s a lot of research now that is going to how the astronauts going to be shielded from these events if they happen. And not only that, it’s not only the shielding, but the communication to when the events are going to happen. There should be a type of autonomous way that the astronauts could actually see the events and understand what is happening if, for example, they’re on the surface of Mars. So those things are things that we’re still working on.
Jim Green:Well, have you been working with the Perseverance rover team and the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, and is space weather of interest to those teams?
Yaireska Collado-Vega: We don’t work directly with the Perseverance and Ingenuity teams. However, every time there’s a Mars-directed event, we do talk to the teams. And we had an incident, for example, that happened, not so long ago, that we had a flare that happened close to the time that they were going to have the Ingenuity’s first flight. And that event actually caused a coronal mass ejection that was predicted to arrive the day of the second flight. We communicated with the team, with Ingenuity team, to make sure that we could analyze the event to make sure that the event wasn’t going to cause a higher radiation environment that could actually cause problems to the Ingenuity instruments.
Yaireska Collado-Vega:And it was, it was, it was stressful, you know, it was communication back and forth, and making sure that we could analyze the event completely. And one of the main things that we had to do is, you know, you have the event traveling, so we looked at other places that the event was going to arrive to see what was the environment in that place. And that happened with Solar Orbiter. So we looked also at the Solar Orbiter data to see what exactly was the environment caused by the CME impact, and then we could actually say, okay, there’s nothing going to happen, you’re gonna be okay. But that shows you that we need to get this asset protected from this event. And sometimes, you know, it’s not realized until it happens, but you know, my team work really hard on that.
Jim Green:How far out into the solar system can we really monitor space weather today?
Yaireska Collado-Vega:In my team, for example, we do monitor anything that goes towards the orbit of Jupiter. After that, there’s many limitations, many physical factors that you take into consideration that the model cannot actually predict very well. You can have an idea of what it’s going towards after that. But to take it, you need to take it as a grain of salt, because there’s a lot of limitations there in the models that could actually affect the result that you’re getting. But in terms of you know, until the orbit of Jupiter, we’re pretty good.
Jim Green:You know, with all our missions in space and making observations of the Sun and the solar wind, are there questions, or at least one thing in particular, you would really like to know about, that we haven’t uncovered the answer yet?
Yaireska Collado-Vega:One of the things that we really don’t know exactly how it happens is the acceleration of those solar energetic particles. And that’s something that we’re trying right now to understand with the new missions that we sent out to space, for example, Parker Solar Probe and Solar Orbiter. Those are one of the key scientific questions that they’re trying to answer. And for us, it’s really important to understand how these particles get accelerated, because those are the particles that cause hazardous environments to astronauts, those are the particles that we’re trying to predict, to protect them. You know, more information that we can get with what happens with those particles, how they can get accelerated at fraction, so the speed of light, where they actually travel, how they travel with the magnetic field lines, all that kind of information is vital for those models to do better predictions, so we can communicate that to the astronauts.
Jim Green: Well, what’s a typical day like for you when you go to work at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center?
Yaireska Collado-Vega:A typical day well, during the pandemic, it hasn’t been typical. But we, in terms of my team, we do, the first thing that we do is look at the Sun, look at the activity, what’s going on. We also look at what happened the day before, so we can actually see if there’s anything that we need to expect. We also understand and analyze what’s going on and the predictions of the models. We actually also try to see if we can actually understand that there are any outages in the model, sometimes it happens you have some data outages, that actually would create a domino effect. And then the model will not have a prediction. And then we do have tag ups. We’d have a tag up with our team where we explain the whole space weather environment, if there were any CMEs, were there any flares, if we’re expecting anything, if we have geomagnetic storms, all that kind of nice stuff. And then later on we do have a specialized tag up with the space radiation analysis group where we actually only discuss the radiation environment. So now we’re talking about solar energetic particle events and how the models are predicting, what’s going on and the CMEs that are related to that kind of activity. So it’s a pretty busy environment.
Yaireska Collado-Vega:When you are doing your real time forecasting and analysis and you have something happening for example, I don’t know, you have to go get your kid from school which happens, you have to make sure that you have a backup because the Sun is not going to wait. Actually what you do is you prepare your analysis, you send it to your secondary person, and that person takes over for the time that you’re not going to be in charge. So it’s a different pace than research. Research, you’re used to be calm, relaxed, and you know, sometimes, waiting you know. It’s coding and reading. Here is very fast paced and you cannot leave the computer. And if you do you have to make sure there’s somebody else watching.
Jim Green: Well, Yari, I always like to ask my guests to tell me what was that event, person, place, or thing that got them so excited about being the scientist they are today? And I call that event a gravity assist. So Yari, what was your gravity assist?
Yaireska Collado-Vega: I was always interested in science but my my parents, I come from a very humble, you know, home in Puerto Rico. They decided to do a trip to Orlando for my sister’s quinceañera and everybody’s very excited. We’re gonna go to Disney World. Yeah! But because they knew I was very excited. about science, they took me to Kennedy Space Center. And I’m not gonna lie, that was the first time that I said, I want to work for NASA. I want to do this for the future. And I was six years old. And people laughed at me every time I said that I wanted to work for NASA, because you know, a little girl from an island, you know, working for NASA something that at that time, you didn’t realize it, you didn’t think it was possible, but every time I somebody laughed at me, I would be like, “I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna show you that I can do this.”
Yaireska Collado-Vega:When I went to high school, you know, things got a little diffused. I actually thought about going into tourism, and then I thought about going to law school. But then I had a really nice teacher that said, “No, your thing is physics. But then, you know, everybody that I said, I wanted to go through physics, people were like, “Oh, no, don’t go through physics, as a scientist, you’re not going to earn any money.” And I was like, “I want to do this, not because of the money, because this is what I love.”
Yaireska Collado-VegaAnd I actually went to University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, and I did my physics undergrad. But the key element that got me to this specific field was when I got an internship. I actually was not accepted that the first time. The second time was the time that I got accepted. I always tried, I was like, I’m never gonna, I’m never gonna quit doing this out. always gonna try. And the second time, I got accepted. And that’s when my mentor sat down with me and explained me what space weather was. And for me, it was like, I was mind-blown. I had no idea that it’s the Sun could cause so many effects. And you know, I heard about auroras before, but I had no idea exactly what was happening behind the curtains, like we say, and I fell in love of the field. I said, “Wow, this is a fairly new field and physics. There’s a lot of new things that we need to know. There’s a lot of uncertainties. This is where I want to be. This is where I want to stay.” And that’s, that’s what happened and here I am.
Jim Green:Yari, you’ve had such a fantastic experience getting involved in space weather in space science. What advice would you give those students that would love to follow in your footsteps?
Yaireska Collado-Vega:I guess I would tell them to never stop being themselves. I had many instances that people will tell me, “Well, you don’t look like a scientist.” And if I left that common, get into me, that will have been really, really damaging to my career. But it’s difficult to stay yourself when you’re surrounded by, you know, so many different people. And it happens, you know, you have good experiences, you have bad experiences. But I think you always need to stay true to yourself.
Yaireska Collado-Vega:And not only that. Network, talk to people, don’t be afraid. Every scientist is a normal person. I remember when I was starting at NASA, and I will be, like, afraid of talking to people. And then, you know, I went out with my mentor. And I realized that she had a family that she had two daughters, two amazing daughters. And that, you know, she was just a normal person. I was like, “Oh, wow.” And that’s when my connection to my mentor actually grew. Because I understood that I could actually be human with her.
Yaireska Collado-Vega:And I think that’s something that I tell all my students: Never forget to be yourself. And also never forget that everybody here is human. Everybody here had a career, everybody here had obstacles, and everybody could be actually a mentor to you. So take advantage of that. And don’t forget to do internships, they’re amazing. And they will show you know how the environment works outside of academia. It’s not the same to go to school, to go to college, as to go to work. It’s not the same. And do an internship will show you that even before you graduate. And that will give you an idea of what you want to do for your future.
Jim Green:Thanks so much for joining me and discussing our wonderful space weather activities that we do here at NASA and your fascinating career.
Yaireska Collado-Vega:Thank you, Jim. Thank you for having me. And I hope this encourages you know, early career people you know, those kids to be involved with the space weather field because we have a lot going on. Not only space weather, heliophysics, you know, it’s a big field and it’s an amazing thing. And there’s a lot of uncertainties that we still need to discover. So, we have a lot of work to do.
Jim Green: We do indeed and I’m delighted you’re involved in it.
Yaireska Collado-Vega:Thank you so much.
Jim Green: Join me next time as we continue our journey to look under the hood at NASA and see how we do what we do. I’m Jim Green and this is your Gravity Assist.
Lead producer: Elizabeth Landau
Audio engineer: Manny Cooper