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The Earth's magentic field serves a shield against solar radiation. However in particularly intense solar storms it can be penetrated, which could destroy satellites in space and electronics on the "sunny side" of Earth at the time of the storm.  (Source: NASA)

The Solar Dynamics Observatory launches in Florida.  (Source: NASA)

The SDO will allow researchers to detect a "space Katrina" event and prepare the Earth for its impact.  (Source: NASA)
New satellite could detect brewing trouble, allow disaster organizations to make plans

The year was 1859 and in the U.S. the roots of Civil War were brewing.  However, in outer space a far worse threat was stewing.  Explosions on the surface of the sun ensued with far greater than usual fury and the Earth was swept with solar radiation from solar flares.  Around the country telegraph lines exploded, causing fires, and crippled our nation's communication.

Fast forward to the present.  The U.S. has not experienced such a storm in decades.  In orbit are a host of vital, yet vulnerable, electronics (satellites) that provide everything from television to other critical communications.  Around the globe, high energy transformers power the industrialized world's hunger for power.  But a solar "storm of the century" -- like the one of 1859 -- could destroy all of that in a mere day, frying first satellites and then transformers via a bombardment of high energy electrons, ultimately plunging much of the world in darkness and leaving many without running water.

Last month NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The new satellite is packed with electronics that can measure details of the sun's atmosphere, its surface, and even its interior.  It will surely yield stunning new insight into how our solar system's power plant works.  However, pure research aside, its most crucial mission may be in detect super solar storms -- as NASA puts it, a "space Katrina".

Solar activity, a phenomena that typically follows a 11-year cycle, reached a record low in 2008 and 2009 with almost no sunspots being detected.  Some researchers say that means that it may rebound to a peak of record activity when activity reaches a maximum again sometime between 2012 and 2015.

A solar storm occurs when activity on the sun -- huge explosions containing the force of scores of atom bombs -- send magnetically charged particles hurtling toward the Earth's magnetic field, our planet's built in protection against solar activity.

Such an event could cause hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars in damage.  In 1989 a solar storm knocked out power to 6 million in Quebec, and in 2006 a storm knocked out GPS coverage for half of the globe.  However, those storms might look garden-variety compared to what NASA says could come.

A solar storm could kill or injure astronauts in space at the time and travelers flying near the Earth's poles.

The SDO's greatest promise is that it's giving officials a means of detecting a dangerous solar event as it brews up, not as its happening.  By the time it happens, its largely too late to prepare for it, but detecting it early could give time for preparations.

The satellite sits in geosynchronous orbit steadily viewing the sun, taking an image every 1.25 seconds, and sending a total of 1.5 TB of data back to Earth daily.

The satellite contains a wealth of high tech equipment designed by researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder and Lockheed Martin in Palo Alto, California.  Among its instruments are the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager or HMI, which detect magnetic waves traveling through the sun that could trigger solar eruptions; the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly or AIA, which studies the sun's corona and watches for changes; and the Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment or EVE, which scans for incoming ultraviolet rays, which could impact satellites and hamper GPS communications.

The satellite wasn't cheap -- it went $56M USD over budget, with a final estimated cost of $856M USD for construction, launch, five years of operation, and six years of data analysis.  With a scrubbed launch on February 10 (the launch occurred the next day), the cost might be even higher.

Still, that investment will likely be worth it as it grants the Earth an eye in space that will likely be able to watch for trouble for at least ten years.  Describes Phil Chamberlin, the deputy project scientist for SDO, "You look at the sun and [in the past would] say, 'Whoops, we just saw a big flare, it's going to affect us.'"

Now we're prepared, though.  If a "space Katrina" fires up, at least we'll be ready to brace for it this time.

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So then what?
By SilentSin on 3/2/2010 9:30:53 AM , Rating: 5
Excuse me for being ignorant, but even if this sat does detect a massive solar storm...what are we going to do about it? Even if you shut power off to certain electronic devices isn't there a high risk of failure from EMP and radiation? Is cutting off power to vital satellites even an option? How quickly can we shut off the power grid to the entire country if that is indeed a viable way to save the infrastructure? I mean it's nice to know what's coming and all...but all this seems to really do is give us time to say "Oh sh** we're screwed now".

RE: So then what?
By aegisofrime on 3/2/2010 9:49:16 AM , Rating: 3
Will putting electronics in a Faraday cage help? I should be able to find a metal box big enough for my laptop and cellphone... As for power, my city has it's electrical grid underground, hopefully they should be protected. But I do think that if the article is going to warn us about the dangers of superflares it should have also included some tips on prevention measures.

RE: So then what?
By amanojaku on 3/2/2010 10:04:27 AM , Rating: 5
RE: So then what?
By Mitch101 on 3/2/2010 10:34:19 AM , Rating: 4
Duck and Cover! Also works for Lava.

RE: So then what?
By chagrinnin on 3/2/2010 11:04:28 PM , Rating: 3
That's it man, game over man, game over!

RE: So then what?
By rippleyaliens on 3/2/2010 12:36:49 PM , Rating: 3
WELL, here is a tid bit.. If we detect the flare, and headed to the USA, we can put the military in higher alert status.. FOR if the USA lost power, fried.. etc.. Then we become an open target for the russians / china / terrorist bob, whatever..
Ability to Divert \ Warn Aircraft... Shut down CRITICAL Servers.. Warn Hospitals of impending possible power outage.. The list gets longer. 2hr warning, is feasable..2days, = LOTS of time to help..

RE: So then what?
By stirfry213 on 3/2/2010 1:01:39 PM , Rating: 4
A solar flare on January 20, 2005 released the highest concentration of protons ever directly measured,[4] taking only 15 minutes after observation to reach Earth, indicating a velocity of approximately one-half light speed.

I agree with previous posts, its likely the warning will mean little.

RE: So then what?
By Noya on 3/2/2010 7:55:02 PM , Rating: 2

A nearly $1 billion satellite and we might get a 15-minute warning. And by we I mean the military and the telcoms that continually rape the average consumer.

RE: So then what?
By porkpie on 3/2/2010 7:58:02 PM , Rating: 3
This just isn't true at all. Satellite operators have a number of precautions they can take -- if they're given waarning. They can put the satellite into 'safe mode', almost entirely powered down. They can retract or rotate solar panels to reduce exposed surface. With sufficient warning, they can even manuever some 'birds' behind the earth itself, using its mass to shield the satellite completely.

Here on earth there are also many precautions electric grid operators can take to minimize impact, including taking transformers or substations offline, to minimize the "ripple effect" of a failure spreading through the entire system.

RE: So then what?
By camylarde on 3/3/2010 10:27:16 AM , Rating: 2
Seriously, these things travel along the magnetic lines, not in direct fashion. The problem with sattelites is to be HIGH in the orbit and having less magnetic field protection than surface. Same goes for poles, where the magnetic lines converge, and enter earth. Whats why aurora borealis is being seen there, and not in Washington for instance.

RE: So then what?
By JediJeb on 3/2/2010 11:31:59 AM , Rating: 3
The underground powergrid in your town may be protected, but the large overhead distribution lines bringing power into your town are the weak link during a storm like this, also including the many substations the power goes through on its way to you.

Devices that are not powered up are usually less vulnerable that those that are active. Turning devices off completely, which would include unplugging most any electronics since now days most are in standby when not in use, should protect them.

RE: So then what?
By Drag0nFire on 3/5/2010 4:38:29 PM , Rating: 2
So what happens if we discover a huge solar storm is about to hit, let's say, France. Can we charge them $800M for the information?

RE: So then what?
By superPC on 3/2/2010 10:17:23 AM , Rating: 2
the sun is only 8 light minute away. if we see a solar storm, then it already happened 8 minutes ago. and with particles from the storm traveling near the speed of light, in a few minutes after we see a solar storm, those particles would've cause havoc to our electrical devices (maybe even destroy). i really hope we know enough about the sun so we can have at least a few hour warning before a solar storm occur.

RE: So then what?
By Marduke on 3/2/2010 10:54:56 AM , Rating: 2
Light reaches us in minutes, but depending on the type of solar event, we would typically have between 2 HOURS and 4 DAYS of notice in which to prepare. With that notice, power and communication grids can be put in protective modes in which they should be able to handle the surge.

RE: So then what?
By superPC on 3/2/2010 11:21:29 AM , Rating: 2
really? that's a relief. could you point me to your source then? thank you. it seems that our technological civilization are not going to disappear after a giant solar storm after all.

RE: So then what?
By omnicronx on 3/2/2010 2:15:17 PM , Rating: 2
Actually the type of event they are describing would take far more than 2 hours even in ideal conditions.

A normal coronal mass ejection(CME) (the type of solar activity Nasa is worried about) usually takes 3-4 days to reach earth. That being said, it all depends on the conditions. Solar storms are rarely a single event, and in the case of the 1859 storm, another CME had cleared the way before the massive CME that caused most of the problems hit, resulting in a trip of a mere 18 hours.

RE: So then what?
By MadMan007 on 3/2/2010 11:59:29 AM , Rating: 2
The whole point of this is to detect such activity early, possibly by predictive means since it mentions being able to see more than the surface because of course by the time we 'see it' it's too late - it's arrived by that time, there is no delay from the time we can see it on Earth.

RE: So then what?
By JediJeb on 3/2/2010 3:53:19 PM , Rating: 2
Actually there is a delay, since it is the matter that is ejected not the light that does the damage, and that does not travel at the speed of light. As mentioned above though some have been clocked at 1/2 light speed which gives us maybe 10 minutes warning. Most are much slower though.

RE: So then what?
By MadMan007 on 3/2/2010 7:16:04 PM , Rating: 2
Ok, I meant a useful delay and didn't feel like typing out all the nuances when it's in the article. The point being that detecting it near Earth once it's already happened barely does any good while predicting it to get days of warning does.

RE: So then what?
By bortiz on 3/2/2010 11:28:53 AM , Rating: 2
If you remember the power outage of 2003, it was a ripple effect from Quebec to New York due to a power failure in Ohio. What early detection can allow us to do is to decouple the network such that we no longer have one huge power grid, allowing the network to fail in parts. This will hopefully leave the bulk of the network intact.

That is the reasoning, if you still say "wish full thinking", I understand.

RE: So then what?
By MrFord on 3/4/2010 1:04:42 PM , Rating: 2
Slight correction here: Ontario got affected, not Quebec. We export most of our electricity to New England but almost none to New York state and points west.

RE: So then what?
By Divide Overflow on 3/2/2010 3:49:24 PM , Rating: 2
Most satellites can be placed in a safe mode. Astronauts can be directed to shelter in the heavily shielded sections of the space station or evacuate by emergency return if the storm is dangerous enough. Electrical grids down on earth can prepare by reducing generation and preparing for distribution adjustments. You can't eliminate all the risk but there are options that advance knowledge brings.

By Leith on 3/2/2010 9:22:40 AM , Rating: 1
I don't know how to put this delicately... I just thought this article was unnecessarily alarmist.

RE: Wow.
By bhieb on 3/2/2010 11:19:51 AM , Rating: 2
I tend to agree if it is indeed on an 11 year cycle, that will peak in 2012, then what happened WAY back in those dark ages of 2001? We must not have had satellites or electricity WAY back then. Oh noes we are DOOMED DOOMED I tell you.


RE: Wow.
By nstott on 3/2/2010 11:39:33 AM , Rating: 2
Thanks for the sarcasm tag. I was just about to go off on you for that ridiculous diatribe but then stopped myself just in time.


RE: Wow.
By bhieb on 3/2/2010 11:48:40 AM , Rating: 2
Well you can't be too careful with some people's reading comprehension (that and sarcasm is more of a verbal phenomena that a written one). But agreed I would hope no one would take that literally.

RE: Wow.
By MadMan007 on 3/2/2010 12:02:00 PM , Rating: 2
Yes it seems a little bit alarmist but your comparison is silly too. They are talking about raditation much much stronger than what's occurred in recent history.

RE: Wow.
By gamerk2 on 3/2/2010 12:39:57 PM , Rating: 2
Just because we haven't had a big solar storm in a while doesn't mean one won't happen, and we shouldn't be prepared just in case.

Its called prevention, silly.

RE: Wow.
By bhieb on 3/2/2010 12:39:07 PM , Rating: 2
They are talking about raditation much much stronger than what's occurred in recent histor

If it is much much higher and less frequent, then it would not be part of the 11 year cycle as implied by the article.

A cycle implies some level of consistency, if this is outside of the norm then it may very well be a different phenomenon altogether. If so then there is no way to "date" our impending doom as the article implies. Not saying that there is no threat, just that the date speculation is completely bogus.

RE: Wow.
By JediJeb on 3/2/2010 4:01:45 PM , Rating: 2
Another thing the article seems to propose is that a higher solar maximum occurs right after a deep solar minimum, which when you look at past cycle history is not usually the case. Most show that after a deep solar minimum like the one stretching from 2008-2009 the next solar maximum is somewhat lower than normal.

If you look at the graph, you see higher maximums follow narrower minimum and vice versa.

Look on the left down below the pic of the solar surface and you will see how deep the recent solar minimum was. It is a very interesting site if you are interested in the current topic also.

RE: Wow.
By MadMan007 on 3/2/2010 7:19:33 PM , Rating: 2
Dating it to a specific year or specific cycle is silly, yes, but when is a major solar storm more likely to happen - nearer a peak or lull in the 11 year cycle? Hmm...

By Ben on 3/2/10, Rating: 0
RE: malware
By NesuD on 3/2/2010 12:38:43 PM , Rating: 2
Just got another pop-up from this page for a fake anti-virus trying to install something on my PC again... I guess I'll just keep posting these until this is fixed... Or I just give up and quit coming to Anandtech...

It's not from this page buddy. You are infected with a nasty malware. Just because it pops up while you are on this page does not mean this is where it is coming from. You need to clean it off your system or it will continue to pop up. Try googling the name it is claiming for itself and you will see that it is you not the website. Damn Porn babys!

RE: malware
By gemsurf on 3/2/2010 1:16:44 PM , Rating: 2
Yo Ben! This is DailyTech, not AnandTech.

RE: malware
By MadMan007 on 3/2/2010 7:21:47 PM , Rating: 2
This has happened to me a few tiumes on AT and DT too. It's one of those fake 'your computer is infected!!11' popups. Scans with different AV and malware software has found nothing so I'm pretty sure it's something in the ads and it's been mentioned by other people in other article comments as well.

RE: malware
By whiskerwill on 3/3/2010 11:06:38 AM , Rating: 2
I'm sure AT/DT just sells spots to a rotator server, which itself resells slots from a thousand different sites. The some company misprepresents itself and buys slots until it gets caught.

By Ammohunt on 3/2/2010 2:11:43 PM , Rating: 4
So storms like these could start sometime in 2012? say December 21st 2012?

RE: 2012!?!?!?!
By Divide Overflow on 3/2/2010 3:55:13 PM , Rating: 2
Storms like these can happen *anytime*.
The normal cycle of increased solar activity will reach a peak between 2012 & 2015.

RE: 2012!?!?!?!
By Ammohunt on 3/3/2010 1:57:00 PM , Rating: 2
Don't watch much Doomsday TV do you.....

By eddieroolz on 3/2/2010 11:33:19 PM , Rating: 3
sending a total of 1.5 TB of data back to Earth daily.

If Comcast/AT&T had their way, NASA would have gone bankrupt by now.

RE: If...
By Ammohunt on 3/3/2010 2:11:26 PM , Rating: 3
Nah they just would have been limited to 1GB per day and flagged as an abuser.

Al Gore Was Right!
By nstott on 3/2/2010 11:42:09 AM , Rating: 2
I blame global warming and George W. Bush. :P

RE: Al Gore Was Right!
By nstott on 3/2/2010 11:47:32 AM , Rating: 2
I know it's old, but I can't help posting it again, especially on this topic:

By funkyd99 on 3/2/2010 12:11:00 PM , Rating: 2
...we have a lot more to worry about than a little solar flare!

By rudolphna on 3/2/2010 1:18:15 PM , Rating: 2
Hah. Internet, GPS, critical military communications, Air traffic control, navigational systems for aircraft... Satellites do a lot more than provide TV.

Just Maybe...
By Reclaimer77 on 3/2/2010 1:34:22 PM , Rating: 2
Just maybe that big ball of fire has SOMETHING to do with global temps Nasa ??

"You look at the sun and [in the past would] say, 'Whoops, we just saw a big flare, it's going to affect us.'"

By Randomblame on 3/3/2010 8:18:16 PM , Rating: 2
I swear to God if I hear someone say "katrina" again I'm going to go out, buy a bb gun and a box of 50 shots, then I'm going to shoot at people from a great distance. I will therefore cause more damage than that freaking hurricane ever did.

Why have this satellite?
By pityme on 3/2/2010 12:30:19 PM , Rating: 1
Per most global warming models, the sun is a static source of energy to the earth with only minor fluctuations. Why have this sat which could provide another possible source of contradictory data on global warming. Obviously this is a W Bush led anti- warming NASA boondogle. No wonder Obama gutted that short sighted agency. We need to get Al Gore and his number crunchers on this sat data ASAP to get ahead of any potential bad numbers.

By nstott on 3/2/2010 9:49:45 AM , Rating: 2
What Katrina taught us is that cradle to grave (C2G) government programs break the will of a people such that they are not even willing to save themselves, as was evident by all of the people waiting around for the government to come get them after they were warned well in advance to leave the area. There have been far greater natural disasters from hurricanes prior to Katrina, and yet the loss of human life was far less because the people in those areas and local governments acted without having to wait for FEMA to show up. C2G socialism is the new slavery, a slavery of the mind.

As for 'W,' whom I have a lot to gripe about with regards to vetoless spending sprees and support of illegal alien shamnesty, isn't he the guy who appointed the first and second ever black US Sectretaries of State?

By Scabies on 3/2/2010 11:37:23 AM , Rating: 3
Anyone remember Rita? No, probably not, as the state government knew what a category 5 hurricane is and how to handle one.

For Katrina, the national government support was there, but the state and local leaders were off playing solitaire.

By JediJeb on 3/2/2010 11:39:35 AM , Rating: 2
I agree, it sure wasn't all Bush's fault with Katrina. Even the New Orleans Mayor at the time didn't take it all that seriously and then was crying for the Feds to come rescue him when the storm was at it worst. So many people these days are like little children, just leave me alone until it is time to feed me, then feed me right now when I want it and exactly what I want. If the people of this country would grow up and act like adults and take responsibility for their own lives we would not have to worry about an over spending government or one that wants to take away our rights since people would not be voting those types of people into power.

By gamerk2 on 3/2/2010 12:43:59 PM , Rating: 1
Funny; Maybe if someone who was qaulified was running FEMA, Katrina wouldn't have been such a problem. And I should note, very few people decide to flee hurricanes anymore, since every time one doesn't cause damage, it weakens the will of others to flee.

BTW, no form of government works when the people allow those who are not qualified to run government agencies.

By nstott on 3/2/2010 1:59:16 PM , Rating: 3
But enough about Obama.

By porkpie on 3/2/2010 8:01:46 PM , Rating: 2
"Maybe if someone who was qaulified was running FEMA, Katrina wouldn't have been such a problem"

Perhaps had the Mayor of New Orleans actually taken proper action before hand, and the Governor of Louisiana not taken four days to approve federal troops being sent in, it wouldn't have taken as long, yes. As for FEMA, they did about as well as any government agency ever does, especially considering the scope of Katrina was far larger than anything they'd previously handled.

I realize how desperately you want to politicize the entire incident, but facts are facts.

By MadMan007 on 3/2/2010 10:20:16 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, how dare people even vaguely politicize anything!! Great advice coming from your porkman.

By invidious on 3/3/2010 1:25:43 PM , Rating: 1
wow do you guys all live under a big rock together? I was quoting and making fun of kanye west. Youtube "kanye west katrina".

I expect more from you guys.

By nstott on 3/3/2010 3:41:58 PM , Rating: 2
Well, if the gubmint didn't make all of us homeless, we wouldn't have to live under this big rock together. Where are the FEMA camps that they promised?!

"The whole principle [of censorship] is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak." -- Robert Heinlein
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