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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 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.

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