A research fellow is exploring the predictability of space weather disturbances that can affect essential communication technologies.
RMIT University's Dr Brett Carter is one of six recipients of the prestigious 2013 Victorian Postdoctoral Research Fellowship.
Currently a visiting research scholar at the Institute for Scientific Research at Boston College in the USA, he is also part of RMIT's SPACE Research Centre in Melbourne.
Alongside scientists at Boston College, and as part of his joint RMIT-Boston College research project, Dr Carter is investigating phenomena in the ionosphere.
His particular focus is on understanding Equatorial Plasma Bubbles that regularly cause radio communication disruptions in the low latitude region close to the equator.
Normally associated with large solar eruptions, geomagnetic disturbances and widespread power blackouts, space weather is a complex and diverse field of research.
It incorporates studies into processes taking place on the Sun, the solar wind, the Earth's magnetosphere and the Earth's ionosphere.
Dr Carter said the ionospheric disturbances the team is studying are not as hazardous as the relatively rare severe geomagnetic storms that have disabled power grids in the past.
"Nonetheless, Equatorial Plasma Bubbles occur on a day-by-day basis and strongly affect any technology that uses radio waves that pass through the ionosphere," he said.
Key technologies that are routinely affected by ionospheric plasma bubbles include many essential systems that are used daily by millions of people on Earth.
"This includes ground-based radar surveillance systems, space debris tracking, ground-to-satellite communications and satellite-based navigation and timing, for example, Global Navigation Satellite Systems such as GPS," Dr Carter said.
It is well understood that these disruptions tend to occur most frequently during the equinox months in the Australasian region - near March and September.
"A key challenge in this research project is the difficultly in predicting the bubbles' occurrence on a daily basis but by using advanced physics-based modelling of the upper atmosphere, we can get a much clearer idea of the processes controlling when and where these disturbances occur," he said.
Director of the RMIT SPACE Research Centre, Professor Kefei Zhang, said Dr Carter was an important part of the centre's research team.
"We value his contribution and his recent visit to Melbourne to give a seminar on his research, in the predictability of ionospheric disturbances that strongly affect radio waves, was well received," he said.
New findings by Dr Carter, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Space Physics, show that physical processes that have been found to govern the likelihood of these ionospheric disturbances have paved the way for a reliable forecasting system to be developed in the not-too-distant future.
"Hopefully, with the help of our close research partners at Boston College and the Australian Space Forecast Centre at the Bureau of Meteorology, a reliable bubble prediction system will soon be developed and used operationally," Dr Carter said.
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