Incoming! CME On Its Way Toward Earth

by Jason Major on July 13, 2012

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As you read this, a huge cloud of charged solar particles is speeding toward our planet, a coronal mass ejection resulting from the X1.4-class flare that erupted from sunspot 1520 on July 12. The CME is expected to collide with Earth’s magnetic field on Saturday, potentially affecting satellite operations and tripping alarms on power grids, as well as boosting auroral activity. It’s on its way, and all we can do is wait. (Thank goodness for magnetospheres!)

Actually, the effects from the incoming CME aren’t expected to be anything particularly dramatic. NOAA is predicting a geomagnetic storm level raging from G2 to G4, which although ranges from “moderate” to “severe” a G2 (Kp = 6) is most likely, according to Dr. C. Alex Young from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

[Read: What Is a CME?]

“A G2 level storm can cause some power fluctuations that may set off some voltage alarms for power companies,” Dr. Young told Universe Today. “Damage to transformers is possible for longer events, but unlikely. Satellite companies may have to make some orbit corrections for their satellites, and at higher latitudes where there are aurora they can be some disruption of high frequency radio broadcasts.

“All in all the effects should be minor,” he concluded.

And this may not be the last we hear from 1520, either.

“Its complexity has decreased but it is still large and has a ‘delta’ configuration,” added Dr. Young, “when there is opposite polarity magnetic field of the umbra within the penumbra of the sunspot. This is an unstable configuration that is indicative of larger releases of energy, lots of flares — in particular M and X flares.”

Below is a computer model of the CME from Goddard Space Weather Center. Impact with Earth is expected on 7/14 at 10:20 UT (+-7 hrs), 6:20 am EDT.

Auroras may be visible at lower latitudes this weekend, so check the NOAA’s updated auroral oval map to see if visibility extends into your area over the next several nights. Hopefully aurora photographers around the world will be able to get some great photos of a summer sky show!

You can keep up with the latest news on solar activity on Dr. Young’s blog, The Sun Today. And of course, stay tuned to Universe Today for more updates on any noteworthy space weather!

The video below uses SDO AIA footage in 131(teal), 171(gold) and 335 (blue) angstrom wavelengths, and shows the X1.4 class flare erupted from the center of the sun on July 12, 2012 at 12:52 PM EDT. Each wavelength shows different temperature plasma in the sun’s atmosphere. 171 shows 600,000 Kelvin plasma, 335 shows 2.5 million Kelvin plasma, and 131 shows 10 million Kelvin plasma. The final shot is a composite of 171 and 335 angstrom footage.

Top image: illustration of a CME about to impact Earth’s magnetosphere (NASA). Model animation: NASA/GSFC. Video courtesy NASA/SDO and the AIA science team.

UPDATE: The CME took a bit longer to arrive than expected, but impact with Earth’s magnetic field was detected at around 1800 UT (11 a.m. PDT/2 p.m. EDT), activating a geomagnetic storm. According to SpaceWeather.com: At the moment, conditions appear favorable for auroras over high-latitude places such as Canada, Scandinavia, Antarctica and Siberia. It is too early to say whether the storm will intensify and bring auroras to middle latitudes as well.

About 

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Photon Capturer July 13, 2012 at 11:43 PM

Has anyone heard about the effect this might have on Mars Science Lab?

Jason Major July 13, 2012 at 11:58 PM

MSL encountered a CME back at the end of January and while it registered the event, it was unharmed. Likely it will ride this one through ok as well. http://www.astronomy.com/~/link.aspx?_id=478cfb69-5b2c-4018-aaea-c0d53f19e609

zkank July 13, 2012 at 6:56 PM

Perhaps one of these times my wish will be fulfilled and all the text messaging services will be selectively wiped out by a CME.
Then this plugged-in-and-entitled generation will lift their heads from the text screens, go outside and discover that there is a real and beautiful world as Pastoral Symphony (Beethoven’s 6th) plays in the background.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMJPZ-mu-Ts
(Brilliantly illustrated by Matt Groening).

Note to expected backlashers – you won’t say anything new that my daughter hasn’t already expressed to me for this wish! ;)

super_earth July 14, 2012 at 12:51 AM

Thank goodness for magnetospheres!

Are scientists really sure of that? Couldn’t be that
the magnetosphere just concentrates the CME over the Polar Latitudes like a
magnet concentrates metallic iron dust on its poles, so that it provides no
protection for the whole planet, shielding the low latitudes and making things
worse for the Polar Regions?

There is also the hypothesis that magnetospheres
shield the planets from the solar wind, preventing atmospheric erosion that
otherwise would lead to a super-thin and cold atmosphere like on Mars. But
VENUS has no magnetic field, yet it has the thickest atmosphere of the solar
system rocky planets (is 90 times more thick than Earth’s atmosphere!).

This article summarizes the skepticism that the
magnetosphere is really a “magnetic shield”:

http://www.astrobio.net/exclusive/3856/the-importance-of-being-magnetized

This is an important issue. Super Earths are predicted
to have a 100% solid iron core, so they have no convection on the core and
without it there is no magnetic field. Super Earths would be
magnetosphere-free.

However, I have read that to make a rocky planet in
the “habitable zone” really habitable, what is needed is tectonic
activity. Tectonic activity moderates the carbon cycle, with CO2 being
liberated by volcanoes and sequestered by weathering of rock minerals. Without
it, CO2 could accumulate without control because the weathering is suppressed
by a flat topograhy (remeber that it’s plate tectonics that turns horizontal
rock strata into mountains) while some volcanic activity(like hotspots)
continues, leading to runaway greenhouse warming.

The bigger the planet, the bigger the plate tectonic
activity according to this paper:

Inevitability of Plate Tectonics on Super-Earths

http://arxiv.org/abs/0710.0699

Super-Earths would be better than earth-sized planets
in habitability if plate tectonics is the key factor. Earth is, according to
the paper, barely big enough to have plate tectonics. A little smaller is
Venus, and this non-tectonics could be the cause of its terrible
super-global-warming fate.

However, I do not know what to think about the
importance of the magnetosphere.

Jason Major July 14, 2012 at 2:33 AM

That first article discusses the importance of the magnetosphere against the loss of a planet’s atmosphere and water, about which the jury is still out. As far as protection against solar wind, well, I’m not sure I’d want to be walking around on a magnetosphere-less planet when the solar storms come rolling in.

super_earth July 14, 2012 at 2:40 AM

Could it not being just like being in the Arctic Circle here on Earth during a solar storm, that is, just seeing a wonderful spectacle of auroras in the sky?
(with the difference that those would apperar in the equator)

Jason Major July 14, 2012 at 4:04 AM

Without a magnetosphere there’d be no aurorae in the sky

super_earth July 14, 2012 at 5:03 AM

What would be perceived of the solar wind/CME in the surface of a magnetosphere-less terrestrial planet?
What harm could it do?

lcrowell July 14, 2012 at 1:05 PM

CMEs interact with the chemistry of planetary atmospheres. In the case of Venus and Earth, which in terms of mass and gravity are roughly comparable, clearly the respective evolution of conditions there lead to very different outcomes. It might be argued that Venus has no tectonic activity, which then lead to these conditions. However, tectonic activity is thought to require water as the lubrication for the motion of tectonic plates over each other. In fact most plate boundaries involve at least on basaltic plate under the ocean. So maybe the chemical changes CME induced on the early Venusian atmosphere prevented the long term duration of oceans.

Whether CMEs over time physically dislodge an atmosphere from a planet may be a secondary effect if the planet’s gravity is large enough. In the case of Mars it must be remembered this is a small planet, about 10% the mass of Earth. Escape velocity is v = sqrt{2Gm/R} for m mass and R the radius of the planet about half Earth, so the escape velocity is sqrt{.1/.5} = sqrt{.2} = .45 times the escape velocity from Earth. As a result CME might have more influence in ejecting the atmosphere of dwarf terrestrial planets such as Mars.

It is hard to speculate about super Earths. The old adage “too much of a good thing” might influence habitability on a terrestrial planet that is sufficiently more massive than Earth. I might expect that if any such large planet rotates that it might have a robust magnetic field. Also if ETI should appear on a super Earth they might be faced with needing to build a Saturn V scale rocket to get a large satellite or spacecraft into orbit.

Predicting the evolution of planets is turning out to be nearly as complicated as trying to predict the evolution of life forms. There could be a planet similar to Mars around some star that has a magnetic field and is not so cold or deprived of atmospheric pressure. There also are probably super Earths that have little atmosphere, or that have the sort of non-tectonic activity on their surface similar to Venus, or which are covered in a massive atmosphere. I suspect there is a transition phase between a super Earth and a Neptunian planet as well, so a planet 10 or more times the mass of Earth might be somewhat Neptunian in nature.

LC

danangel July 14, 2012 at 2:29 AM

A world wide massive EMP taking out most communications, TV, telephones and internet for at least a year, possibly up to a decade. What a different world that would leave. Back to the basics and the end of the welfare state.

Olaf2 July 14, 2012 at 11:10 AM

Can’t happen on a global scale.
And in addition, look how many Americans were without power for a very long time. WW III did not happen, massive rots did not happen, economics did not happen.

Wezley Jackson July 14, 2012 at 3:31 AM

Good to see some people at least talking openly about the potential dangers (in addition to alarm bell ringers like scientist Bill Murtagh at NOAA). zhank and danangel, I think its pretty unrealistic to think there would be much selective positive effects (ie. some return to good ol fashioned society), I think depending on the severity of the HILF (High Impact Low Probability) event, all stratums of society could be very seriously effected. I dont want to spell out the details but the worse case scenario is frightening indeed – stockpiles of spent nuclear fuel going critical because of fuel supply interruption (cooling systems dependent on backup generators and fuel supply interrupted by infrastructure dependent on the grid and the ensuing transport chaos from social upheval). Please do write your government representatives and ask them why the senate has blocked the GRID legislation and why we arent hardening our electrical infrastructure by spending a few hundred million when trillions and lives could be at stake,

melanie zuniga July 14, 2012 at 4:05 AM

But when will this happen ? cause i really want to see some real action .Like at Dawn or what ?

melanie zuniga July 14, 2012 at 4:07 AM

someone tell me what time it might hit !!!!! I just berely found out about this

melanie zuniga July 14, 2012 at 4:08 AM

Hurryyyyy!!!!!!!! or did it already hit!!!!????!!!!!??!?!!?!

Devi L July 14, 2012 at 4:38 AM

well, i am GMT -5 eastern time U.S. and should be 6:20a.m. here

Marshall Warren July 14, 2012 at 6:24 AM

lmao, i love seeing this comment among the rest

dfadsfas July 15, 2012 at 9:14 PM

“Plugged-in-and-entitled generation” .. I’m 20, I read scientific news, go outside, listen to classic music. But thanks for generalizing an entire generation without a hint of irony while using the internet, I think I see who the real entitled one is here.

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