One of the biggest disasters we face would begin about 18 hours after the sun spit out a 10-billion-ton ball of plasma--something it has done before and is sure to do again. When the ball, a charged cloud of particles called a coronal mass ejection (CME), struck the Earth, electrical currents would spike through the power grid. Transformers would be destroyed. Lights would go out. Food would spoil and--since the entire transportation system would also be shut down--go unrestocked.
Yesterday, the vernal equinox, the sun returned to the Northern Hemisphere at last. Nothing here or anywhere else in our corner of the galaxy would exist without the sun, yet a surprising number of solar mysteries persist. Much of heliophysics is focused on “space weather,” predicting what the sun will do. That’s because solar flares and coronal mass ejections spew charged particles and radiation into space, occasionally toward Earth. These seething bursts of energy can jeopardize telecommunications on the ground and in space, not to mention the lives of astronauts.
We may spend out days basking it its life-enabling glow, but there’s a lot we don’t know about our sun and how it impacts our planet. So NASA’s Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) was launched to shed some light on the sun, and Sunday it beamed back its “first light” images—that is, the STEREO released its first 3-D images of the sun. Sort of.
Last month’s solar storm was pretty stellar, but the massive flare that erupted from the sun yesterday put it to shame, lashing out from the solar surface in a beautiful filament that stretched for 435,000 miles – nearly twice the distance between the Earth and moon and about 60,000 miles larger than last month’s plasma ejection.
They’re out there, biding their time. Waiting patiently. And when you least expect it, they’re going to plunge you and everyone you care about into total darkness. Luckily, we can see solar storms coming from about 93 million miles away, and NASA is now in the process of creating a “Solar Shield” that should be able to minimize the damage to power grids caused by electromagnetic disturbances in the atmosphere and ground caused by foul weather on the sun.
In a mission to learn more about the sun’s inner workings, NASA is planning to launch a specially shielded spacecraft in 2018 that will plunge into the solar atmosphere. The car-sized Solar Probe Plus will explore an area just 4 million miles from the star’s surface, the last region of the solar system to be explored by humans.
A solar storm that smashed into Earth on April 5 went largely unnoticed by most of us down here on the planet, but a group of engineers at satellite maker Orbital Sciences Corp. have been thinking about it ever since. That's the day Galaxy 15, one of their satellites owned by Intelsat, went radio silent. The satellite is still functioning, going about its daily chores of relaying signals around the globe, but Galaxy 15 is ignoring all commands from handlers on Earth, leading engineers to dub the renegade satellite a "zombiesat."
Solar storms could wreak havoc on satellites and power grids, and so scientists have humbly turned to netizens across the world to help watch our sun for possible signs of such storms. Anyone who can spare some time from YouTube and Facebook also gets to peer at nifty 3-D images of the sun, according to BBC.
No electricity, no running water, and no phone service for millions of people. That scenario could easily become reality if a solar storm as intense as those found throughout the history of our planet were to strike Earth today. NPR reported on FEMA's recent simulation of such a storm, and the grim conditions it uncovered.