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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: 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...

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