A better forecast for space weather

Research lives: Dr Sophie Murray is a research fellow at TCD and Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

What does your day at work involve?

That depends. During term time, on a given day I might be lecturing to students at Trinity College Dublin. Then for my research, I am based at Trinity and at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

I work on improving approaches to space weather forecasts – particularly how we can better detect activity such as solar flares of radiation that travel out from the Sun towards Earth. I also do outreach at Dunsink Observatory, where we give and host talks, and we help people to use the telescopes to look at the stars and planets.

Do you encounter misconceptions about your work?

Yes, when I tell people that I work on solar flares, some have a perception from science fiction of apocalyptic flares zapping out of the Sun and ripping into the Earth’s atmosphere. But really it’s not that dramatic.

The planet’s magnetic field protects us on the ground from the radiation of solar flares. That said, solar flares can affect satellite-based telecommunications and power supplies, so it’s important that we can predict them and take action to shield the satellites from flares and minimise their effects on us.

How do you improve space weather forecasts?

My research is about taking new discoveries about space weather – the changes in the environment in Earth’s upper atmosphere and beyond – and using that information to improve how we make forecasts.

I work with data from spacecraft that pick up information about solar flares and other activity on the Sun’s surface, and I use physics and maths to better understand how to use that information.

We are not as good yet at forecasting space weather as we are at forecasting Earth weather, and we can learn a lot from talking to meteorologists who work on Earth weather. A lot of my research at the moment is taking computing techniques for weather forecasting and implementing them in space weather.

How did you get interested in this area?

At school I really wanted to work on space science, and I studied astrophysics in Trinity. For my final year project, I did a space weather study and I was hooked. I really liked the practical aspect, and I liked being able to work on something with an immediate impact on society.

Also, forecasting space weather is a really important aspect of crewed missions that leave Earth’s atmosphere, we need to protect people on spacecraft from that radiation.

What gets you through the harder days of research?

I’m really lucky in that I love my job. There are days, of course, when maybe the research is difficult or there are obstacles in the way. When that happens, I write lectures and plan outreach activities. I find that a really positive way to keep focused.

And finally, how do you take a break?

We have an energetic Labradoodle, so walking the dog is always an option. My husband is from Alaska, and when we go hiking with the dog in the Dublin mountains, he questions whether they are actually mountains! But we both agree there is nothing like getting out walking in the Irish winter air to clear the head.