Watch the Sun to Know When We’re Going to Have Killer Auroras

To the naked eye, the Sun puts out energy in a continual, steady state, unchanged through human history. (Don’t look at the sun with your naked eye!) But telescopes tuned to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum reveal the Sun’s true nature: A shifting, dynamic ball of plasma with a turbulent life. And that dynamic, magnetic turbulence creates space weather.

Space weather is mostly invisible to us, but the part we can see is one of nature’s most stunning displays, the auroras. The aurora’s are triggered when energetic material from the Sun slams into the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is the shimmering, shifting bands of color seen at northern and southern latitudes, also known as the northern and southern lights.

This image of the northern lights over Canada was taken by a crew member on board the ISS in Sept. 2017. Image: NASA

There are two things that can cause auroras, but both start with the Sun. The first involves solar flares. Highly-active regions on the Sun’s surface produce more solar flares, which are sudden, localized increase in the Sun’s brightness. Often, but not always, a solar flare is coupled with a coronal mass ejection (CME).

A coronal mass ejection is a discharge of matter and electromagnetic radiation into space. This magnetized plasma is mostly protons and electrons. The CME ejection often just disperses into space, but not always. If it’s aimed in the direction of the Earth, chances are we get increased auroral activity.

The second cause of auroras are coronal holes on the Sun’s surface. A coronal hole is a region on the surface of the Sun that is cooler and less dense than surrounding areas. Coronal holes are the source of fast-moving streams of material from the Sun.

Whether it’s from an active region on the Sun full of solar flares, or whether it’s from a coronal hole, the result is the same. When the discharge from the Sun strikes the charged particles in our own magnetosphere with enough force, both can be forced into our upper atmosphere. As they reach the atmosphere, they give up their energy. This causes constituents in our atmosphere to emit light. Anyone who has witnessed an aurora knows just how striking that light can be. The shifting and shimmering patterns of light are mesmerizing.

The auroras occur in a region called the auroral oval, which is biased towards the night side of the Earth. This oval is expanded by stronger solar emissions. So when we watch the surface of the Sun for increased activity, we can often predict brighter auroras which will be more visible in southern latitudes, due to the expansion of the auroral oval.

This photo is of the aurora australis over New Zealand. Image: Paul Stewart, Public Domain, CC 1.0 Universal.

Something happening on the surface of the Sun in the last couple days could signal increased auroras on Earth, tonight and tomorrow (March 28th, 29th). A feature called a trans-equatorial coronal hole is facing Earth, which could mean that a strong solar wind is about to hit us. If it does, look north or south at night, depending on where your live, to see the auroras.

Of course, auroras are only one aspect of space weather. They’re like rainbows, because they’re very pretty, and they’re harmless. But space weather can be much more powerful, and can produce much greater effects than mere auroras. That’s why there’s a growing effort to be able to predict space weather by watching the Sun.

A powerful enough solar storm can produce a CME strong enough to damage things like power systems, navigation systems, communications systems, and satellites. The Carrington Event in 1859 was one such event. It produced one of the largest solar storms on record.

That storm occurred on September 1st and 2nd, 1859. It was preceded by an increase in sun spots, and the flare that accompanied the CME was observed by astronomers. The auroras caused by this storm were seen as far south as the Caribbean.

Sunspots are dark areas on the surface of the Sun that are cooler than the surrounding areas. They form where magnetic fields are particularly strong. The highly active magnetic fields near sunspots often cause solar flares. Image: NASA/SDO/AIA/HMI/Goddard Space Flight Center

The same storm today, in our modern technological world, would wreak havoc. In 2012, we almost found out exactly how damaging a storm of that magnitude could be. A pair of CMEs as powerful as the Carrington Event came barreling towards Earth, but narrowly missed us.

We’ve learned a lot about the Sun and solar storms since 1859. We now know that the Sun’s activity is cyclical. Every 11 years, the Sun goes through its cycle, from solar maximum to solar minimum. The maximum and minimum correspond to periods of maximum sunspot activity and minimum sunspot activity. The 11 year cycle goes from minimum to minimum. When the Sun’s activity is at its minimum in the cycle, most CMEs come from coronal holes.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and the combined ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) are space observatories tasked with studying the Sun. The SDO focuses on the Sun and its magnetic field, and how changes influence life on Earth and our technological systems. SOHO studies the structure and behavior of the solar interior, and also how the solar wind is produced.

Several different websites allow anyone to check in on the behavior of the Sun, and to see what space weather might be coming our way. The NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has an array of data and visualizations to help understand what’s going on with the Sun. Scroll down to the Aurora forecast to watch a visualization of expected auroral activity.

NASA’s Space Weather site contains all kinds of news about NASA missions and discoveries around space weather. SpaceWeatherLive.com is a volunteer run site that provides real-time info on space weather. You can even sign up to receive alerts for upcoming auroras and other solar activity.

How Bad Can Solar Storms Get?

Our Sun regularly pelts the Earth with all kinds of radiation and charged particles. Just how bad can these solar storms get?

In today’s episode, we’re going to remind you how looking outside of the snow globe can inspire your next existential crisis.

You guys remember the Sun right? Look how happy that little fella is. The Sun is our friend! Life started because of the Sun! Oooh, look, the Sun has a baby face! It’s a beautiful, ball of warmth and goodness, lighting up our skies and bringing happiness into our hearts.

It’s a round yellow circle in crayon. Very stable and firmly edged. Occasionally drawn with a orange lion’s mane for coronal effects. Nothing to be afraid, right?

Wake up sheeple. It’s time to pull back the curtain of the marketing world, big crayon fridge art and the children’s television conspiracy of our brightly glowing neighborhood monstrosity. That thing is more dangerous than you can ever imagine.

You know the Sun is a nuclear reaction right next door. Like it’s right there. RIGHT THERE! It’s a mass of incandescent gas, with a boiling bubbling surface of super-heated hydrogen. It’s filled with a deep yellow rage, expressed every few days by lashing out millions of kilometers into space with fiery death tendrils and blasts of super radiation.

The magnetic field lines on the Sun snap and reconnect, releasing a massive amount of radiation and creating solar flares. Solar plasma constrained in the magnetic loop is instantly released, smashed together and potentially generating x-ray radiation.

“Big deal. I get x-rayed all the time.” you might think. We the mighty humans have mastered the X-ray spectrum! Not so fast puny mortal. Just a single x-ray class flare can blast out more juice than 100 billion nuclear explosions.

 In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO
In this image, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured an X1.2 class solar flare, peaking on May 15, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

Then it’s just a quick 8 minute trip to your house, where the radiation hits us with no warning. Solar flares can lead to coronal mass ejections, and they can happen other times too, where huge bubbles of gas are ejected from the Sun and blasted into space. This cosmic goo can take a few hours to get to us, and are also excellent set-ups for nocturnal emission and dutch oven jokes.

Astronomers measure the impact of a solar storm on the Earth using a parameter called DST, or “disturbance storm time”. We measure the amount that the Earth’s protective magnetosphere flexes during a solar storm event. The bigger the negative number, the worse it is.

If we can see an aurora, a geomagnetic storms in the high altitudes, it measures about -50 nanoteslas. The worst storm in the modern era, the one that overloaded our power grid in 1989, measured about -600 nanoteslas.

The most potent solar storm we have on record was so powerful that people saw the Northern Lights as far south as Cuba. Telegraph lines sparked with electricity and telegraph towers caught on fire. This was in 1859 and was clearly named by Syfy’s steampunk division. This was known as the Carrington Event, and estimated in the -800 to -1750 nanotesla range.

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day - a
A spectacular green and red aurora photographed early this morning March 17, 2015, from Donnelly Creek, Alaska. Credit: Sebastian Saarloos

So, how powerful do these things need to be to cook out our meat parts? The good news is contrary to my earlier fear mongering, the most powerful flare our Sun can generate is harmless to life on Earth.

Don’t let your guard down, the Sun is still horribly dangerous. It’ll bake us alive faster than you can say “Hansel und Gretel”. Assuming you can drag that phrase out over a billion years. As far as flares go, and so long as we stay right here, we’ll be fine. We might even see a nice aurora in the sky.

For those of you who use technology on a regular basis, you might not be so lucky. Powerful solar storms can overload power grids and fry satellites. If the Carrington Event happened now, we’d have a lot of power go out, and a small orbital scrapyard of dead satellites.

Astronauts outside the Earth, perhaps bouncing around on the Moon, or traveling to Mars would be in a universe of trouble without a good method of shielding.

The solar flares that the Sun can produce is minuscule compared to other stars out there. In 2014, NASA’s Swift satellite witnessed a flare that generated more than 10,000 times more energy than the most powerful solar flare ever seen.

Solar flare on the surface of the Sun. Image credit: NASA
Solar flare on the surface of the Sun. Image credit: NASA

For a brief moment, the surface of the red dwarf star DG Canum Venaticorum lit up hotter than 200 million degrees Celsius. That’s 12 times hotter than the center of the Sun. A blast that powerful would have scoured all life from the face of the Earth. Except the future colony of tardigrade descendants. Remember, the water bears are always watching.

Young red dwarf stars are renowned for these powerful flares, and this is one of the reasons astronomers think they’re not great candidates for life. It would be hard to survive blast after blast of radiation from these unruly stars. Alternately, planets around these stars are could be living terrariums inspired by the Gamma World RPG.

Breathe easy and don’t worry. Perhaps the Sun is our friend, and it truly does have our best interests at heart.

It’s not a big fan of our technology, though, and it’s ready to battle alongside us when the robot revolution begins. Oh, also, wear sunscreen, as the Sun’s brand of love isn’t all that different from Doctor Manhattan.

Have you ever seen an aurora display? Tell us a cool story in the comments below.

Space Weather Storm Monitoring Satellite Blasts off for Deep Space on SpaceX Rocket

After a 17 year long wait, a new American mission to monitor intense solar storms and warn of impeding space weather disruptions to vital power grids, telecommunications satellites and public infrastructure was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Wednesday, Feb. 11, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start a million mile journey to its deep space observation post.

The third time proved to be the charm when the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR science satellite lifted off at 6:03 p.m. EST Wednesday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The spectacular sunset blastoff came after two scrubs this week forced by a technical problem with the Air Force tracking radar and adverse weather on Sunday and Tuesday.

The $340 million DSCOVR has a critical mission to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth at an observation point nearly a million miles from Earth. It will also take full disk color images of the sunlit side of Earth at least six times per day that will be publicly available and “wow” viewers.

Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: Julian Leek

The couch sized probe was targeted to the L1 Lagrange Point, a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the satellite will orbit about that spot just like a planet.

L1 is a perfect place for the science because it lies outside Earth’s magnetic environment. The probe will measure the constant stream of solar wind particles from the sun as they pass by.

The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft's position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)
The DSCOVR spacecraft (3-axis stabilized, 570 kg) will be delivered to the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth, directly in front of the Sun. A Halo (Lissajous) orbit will stabilize the craft’s position around the L1 point while keeping it outside the radio noise emanating from the Sun. (Illustratin Credit: NASA)

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments are provided by NASA and NOAA. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

The mission is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure such as power grids, aviation, planes in flight, all types of Earth orbiting satellites for civilian and military needs, telecommunications, ISS astronauts and GPS systems.

It will take about 150 days to reach the L1 point and complete satellite and instrument checkouts.

DSCOVR will then become the first operational space weather mission to deep space and function as America’s primary warning system for solar magnetic storms.

It will replace NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite which is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.

“DSCOVR is the latest example of how NASA and NOAA work together to leverage the vantage point of space to both understand the science of space weather and provide direct practical benefits to us here on Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard and the science was lost until now.

DSCOVR mission logo.  Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force
DSCOVR mission logo. Credit: NOAA/NASA/U.S. Air Force

DSCOVR is equipped with a suite of four continuously operating solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA.

It will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth.

The 750-kilogram (1250 pound) DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches.

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace

The two Earth science instruments from NASA are the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR).

EPIC will provide true color spectral images of the entire sunlit face of Earth at least six times per day, as viewed from an orbit around L1. They will be publically available within 24 hours via NASA Langley.

It will view the full disk of the entire sunlit Earth from sunrise to sunset and collect a variety of science measurements including on ozone, aerosols, dust and volcanic ash, vegetation properties, cloud heights and more.

Listen to my post launch interview with the BBC about DSCOVR and ESA’s successful IXV launch on Feb. 11.

A secondary objective by SpaceX to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster on an ocean going barge had to be skipped due to very poor weather and very high waves in the Atlantic Ocean making a safe landing impossible. The stage did successfully complete a soft landing in the ocean.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  John Studwell
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: John Studwell
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Chuck Higgins
Prelaunch view of SpaceX rocket on Cape Canaveral launch pad taken from LC-39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Chuck Higgins

What’s The Fastest Way To Die In Space?

Space is a hostile environment for human beings. No part of it will permit you to survive longer than a minute. But what’s the fastest way to die in space?

Just in case you were planning to jump out into the vacuum of space without a spacesuit, I urge you to reconsider. There’s nothing but painful suffocation and death. Do not do it.

You probably wouldn’t be here if you weren’t wondering, just how lethal is space? What are all the ways space is trying to kill you? Space has a Swiss army knife of methods to do you in. You won’t be surprised to learn that classic sci-fi usually had it wrong. If you jumped out into the cold deep void without a protective suit, you wouldn’t pop like a giant pressurized juicy meat pimple. Your blood doesn’t boil, and you don’t flash freeze.

The good news is even though there is a pressure difference, human skin is strong enough to keep your body together. The bad news is you just plain old asphyxiate, almost instantaneously. The human body has about 15 seconds of usable oxygen in the blood. Once you run through that oxygen, you’ll take a quick space nap and then die a few minutes later.

On Earth, you can hold your breath for a few minutes but this gets much harder in space, as the low pressure forces the air out of your lungs. In fact, it would probably be wise to breathe every last bit of air out before you stepped out, since it’s coming out violently, one way or another.

Here’s the amazing thing. If you jumped out into space and could get back into a pressurized environment within a minute or so, you probably wouldn’t suffer any permanent damage, aside from a little bruising, some hypothermia and a really nasty sunburn. Stay out for any longer, though, and the damage will get worse. Beyond a few minutes and you’ll be done.Which is just fine, as you weren’t planning on going out into space without a spacesuit anyway.

An illustration showing the natural barrier Earth gives us against solar radiation. Credit: NASA.
An illustration showing the natural barrier Earth gives us against solar radiation. Credit: NASA.

Unfortunately, even tucked safely in your spacecraft, there are tremendous risks to being away from the comfort of Earth. You’ve got to be worried about radiation. Once a spacecraft leaves the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field, it’s exposed to the high levels constantly streaming through space. A trip from Earth to Mars and back again might increase your overall risk developing a fatal cancer by about 5%, and that’s a risk most astronauts are willing to take. But there are solar storms blasting out from the Sun that could deliver a lethal dose of radiation in just a few hours. Astronauts would need a safe, radiation-shielded location during these solar storms or they’d expire from acute radiation poisoning.

There are many, many other risks from traveling in space. Fire is one of the worst, failure of your oxygen system, access to clean water and food become an obvious problem. Even things we usually don’t think about, like mold building up in the damp environment of a spaceship becomes a problem.

Survive all these immediate hazards, just like here on Earth, and the long term hazards will get you. We have no idea if it’s even possible for the human body to exist in microgravity for longer than a few years. Your bones dissolve, your muscles waste away, and there might be other consequences.

A view of the damaged P6 4B solar panel on the ISS. Image credit: NASA
A view of the damaged P6 4B solar panel on the ISS. Image credit: NASA

So far, nobody is willing to run the experiment long enough to find out. And finally, the fastest way space can kill you is likely impact with debris. Even though space is mostly empty, there’s all kinds of material whizzing around. Every spacecraft is pockmarked with micrometeorite impacts. There are holes punched through the International Space Station’s solar panels. These tiny pieces of rock can be traveling at 10 kilometers per second when they impact the spacecraft.

Spacecraft have layers of protection to absorb smaller particles, but there’s no way to prevent larger objects from causing catastrophic damage. If those layers weren’t there you’d be a short hop skip and a jump from becoming a heavily perforated spongebob spacepants. The solution? You just have to hope they never hit.

There certainly a many ways to quickly die in space, but what’s really amazing to me is how we can actually overcome many of these risks, certainly long enough to reach other worlds in the Solar System. Traveling in space is dangerous and difficult, but the exciting thing is it’s still possible. And one day, we’ll do it.

So, even knowing the risks, would you travel in space?

A Natural Planetary Defense Against Solar Storms

Planetary shields up: solar storms inbound…

Researchers at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have identified a fascinating natural process by which the magnetosphere of our fair planet can — to use a sports analogy — “shot block,” or at least partially buffer an incoming solar event.

The study, released today in Science Express and titled “Feedback of the Magnetosphere” describes new process discovered in which our planet protects the near-Earth environment from the fluctuating effects of inbound space weather.

Our planet’s magnetic field, or magnetosphere, spans our world from the Earth’s core out into space. This sheath typically acts as a shield. We can be thankful that we inhabit a world with a robust magnetic field, unlike the other rocky planets in the inner solar system.

But when a magnetic reconnection event occurs, our magnetosphere merges with the magnetic field of the Sun, letting in powerful electric currents that wreak havoc.

Now, researchers from NASA and MIT have used ground and space-based assets to identify a process that buffers the magnetosphere, often keeping incoming solar energy at bay.

The results came from NASA’s Time History Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) constellation of spacecraft and was backed up by data gathered over the past decade for MIT’s Haystack Observatory.

Observations confirm the existence of low-energy plasma plumes that travel along magnetic field lines, rising tens of thousands of kilometres above the Earth’s surface to meet incoming solar energy at a “merging point.”

“The Earth’s magnetic field protects life on the surface from the full impact of these solar outbursts,” said associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory John Foster in the recent press release. “Reconnection strips away some of our magnetic shield and lets energy leak in, giving us large, violent storms. These plasmas get pulled into space and slow down the reconnection process, so the impact of the Sun on the Earth is less violent.”

The study also utilized an interesting technique known as GPS Total Electron Content or GPS-TEC. This ground-based technique analyzes satellite transmitted GPS transmissions to thousands of ground based receivers, looking for tell-tale distortions that that signify clumps of moving plasma particles. This paints a two dimensional picture of atmospheric plasma activity, which can be extended into three dimensions using space based information gathered by THEMIS.

And scientists got their chance to put this network to the test during the moderate solar outburst of January 2013. Researchers realized that three of the THEMIS spacecraft were positioned at points in the magnetosphere that plasma plumes had been tracked along during ground-based observations. The spacecraft all observed the same cold dense plumes of rising plasma interacting with the incoming solar stream, matching predictions and verifying the technique.

Launched in 2007, THEMIS consists of five spacecraft used to study substorms in the Earth’s magnetosphere. The Haystack Observatory is an astronomical radio observatory founded in 1960 located just 45 kilometres northwest of Boston, Massachusetts.

THEMIS in the lab.
THEMIS in the lab. Credit-NASA/Themis.

How will this study influence future predictions of the impact that solar storms have on the Earth space weather environment?

“This study opens new doors for future predictions,” NASA Goddard researcher Brian Walsh told Universe Today. “The work validates that the signatures of the plume far away from the Earth measured by spacecraft match signatures in the Earth’s upper atmosphere made from the surface of the Earth. Although we might not always have spacecraft in exactly the correct position to measure one of these plumes, we have almost continuous coverage from ground-based monitors probing the upper atmosphere. Future studies can now use these signatures as a proxy for when the plume has reached the edge of our magnetic shield (known as the magnetopause) which will help us predict how large a geomagnetic storm will occur from a given explosion from the Sun when it reaches the Earth.”

The structure of Earth's magnetosphere. Credit-
The structure of Earth’s magnetosphere. Credit-NASA graphic in the Public Domain.

Understanding how these plasma plumes essentially hinder or throttle incoming energy during magnetic reconnection events, as well as the triggering or source mechanism for these plumes is vital.

“The source of these plumes is an extension of the upper atmosphere, a region that space physicists call the plasmasphere,” Mr. Walsh told Universe Today. “The particles that make the plume are actually with us almost all of the time, but they normally reside relatively close to the Earth. During a solar storm, a large electric field forms and causes the upper layers of the plasmasphere to be stripped away and are sent streaming sunward towards the boundary of our magnetic field. This stream of particles is the ‘plume’ or ‘tail’”

Recognizing the impacts that these plumes have on space weather will lead to better predictions and forecasts for on- and off- the planet as well, including potential impacts on astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Flights over the poles are also periodically rerouted towards lower latitudes during geomagnetic storms.

“This study defines new tools for the toolbox we use to predict how large or how dangerous a given solar eruption will be for astronauts and satellites,” Walsh said. “This work offers valuable new insights and we hope these tools will improve prediction capabilities in the near future.”

Spaceweather is currently a hot topic, as we’ve recently seen an uptick in auroral activity last month.

And speaking of which, there’s a common misconception out there that we see reported every time auroral activity makes the news…   remember that aurorae aren’t actually caused by solar wind particles colliding with our atmosphere, but the acceleration of particles trapped in our magnetic field fueled by the solar wind.

And speaking of solar activity, there’s also an ongoing controversy in the world of solar heliophysics as to the lackluster solar maximum for this cycle, and what it means for concurrent cycles #25 and #26.

It’s exciting times indeed in the science of space weather forecasting…

and hey, we got to drop in sports analogy, a rarity in science writing!

Monster Sunspot Erupts with an X-Class Flare

Solar astronomers have been keeping an eye on giant sunspot AR1944, and as it turned towards Earth today, the sunspot erupted with a powerful X1.2-class flare. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said the flare sparked a “strong radio blackout” today, and they have issued a 24 hour “moderate” magnetic storm watch indicating a coronal mass ejection (CME) associated with the flare may be heading towards Earth. A CME is a fast moving cloud of charged particles which can interact with Earth’s atmosphere to cause aurora, so observers in northern and southern latitudes should be on the lookout for aurora, possibly through January 10.

Here’s a video of the flare from the Solar Dynamics Observatory:

The SWPC forecasters said they are anticipating G2 (Moderate) Geomagnetic Storm conditions to occur on January 9, followed by G1 (Minor) levels January 10. NOAA estimates the CME headed towards Earth might produce a Kp number of 6.

The Earth-directed CME launched from AR1944 at 1832 UTC (1:32 p.m. EST) on January 7. Here’s an animation of the CME. Astronomers have said that this sunspot region remains “well-placed and energetic” so there could be subsequent activity.

A closeup look at sunspot AR1944 on January 6, 2013, comparing its size to Earth. Credit and copyright:  Ron Cottrell.
A closeup look at sunspot AR1944 on January 6, 2013, comparing its size to Earth. Credit and copyright: Ron Cottrell.

According to SpaceWeather.com, AR1944 has “an unstable ‘beta-gamma-delta’ magnetic field,” making it ripe for activity. Here’s a quick video of today’s X-class flare showing the coronal wave:

AR144 as seen on January 7, 2014. At the bottom are size comparisons to Earth and Jupiter. Credit and copyright: Giuseppe Petricca.
AR144 as seen on January 7, 2014. At the bottom are size comparisons to Earth and Jupiter. Credit and copyright: Giuseppe Petricca.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory has a “self-updating” webpage showing the latest views of the Sun in various wavelengths.

NOAA: Largest Solar Radiation Storm Since 2005 Now in Progress

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Earth’s magnetic field is already full of activity from an Earth-directed Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) last week. But all indications are another blast is headed our way from the strongest solar radiation storm since September, 2005. NOAA says the storm is currently in progress and continues to get stronger, with a very fast CME headed towards Earth. Sunspot 1402 erupted, producing a long-duration M9-class solar flare. “Geomagnetic storming is a near certainty from this event,” reported NOAA. The associated solar flare peaked at about 0400 UTC on January 23 (11pm Jan 22 EST).”

A computer model just released by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center forecasts the storm will arrive sometime on January 24, at about 14:18 UT (+/- 7 hours), as the CME is traveling at approx. 2,200 km per second. Click here to see the animated model.

We’ve already shown you a video of the auroral activity going on yesterday and will soon post a gallery of beautiful aurorae from around the world. And it looks like we’ll likely have more photos to share in the coming week! And NASA says skywatchers should be on the lookout for aurora in lower than normal latitudes. Scientists are also predicting that Mars will get hit too, several hours after Earth. At this point, there’s no way to predict the possible effect on Earth-orbiting satellites for communications, GPS, etc, or the effect on Mars spacecraft.

These kinds of events can cause problems for spacecrafts in geosynchronous, polar and other orbits passing could be affected by the cloud’s arrival. In addition, strong geomagnetic storms are possible, so high-latitude sky watchers should be alert for aurorae.

Below is a video from the Solar Dynamics Observatory of the event:

Solar Storm Heading Our Way

Early today, (Aug 3, 2011) two active regions on the Sun, sunspot 1261 and 1263 unleashed solar flares, which was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The above video shows an M6 class flare from 1261 in a couple of different wavelengths. SolarstormWatch, a citizen science project through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England predicts the solar storm from the larger flare to reach Earth at 15:00 UTC on August 5, 2011, and also predict direct hit on Earth.

See below for a graph of the activity:

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Solar storms are a concern if they hit Earth directly since under the right conditions, they can create extra electrical currents in Earth’s magnetosphere. The electrical power grid is vulnerable to any extra currents, which can infiltrate high-voltage transmission lines, causing transformers to overheat and possibly burn out.

Check SpaceWeather.com and the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center for more information.