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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.

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