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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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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.

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007
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