Science Scope

Solar storm sends particles to Earth

Posting in Cities

Astronomer Leon Golub explains the strength of the solar storm. This solar storm was moderate, but more severe ones have the potential to cause wide-spread disruption here on Earth.

The sun just threw up a coronal mass ejection from its atmosphere and hurled the particles directly at Earth. A telescope on board NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded the movement of the plasma particles traveling in space.

"This eruption is directed right at us, and is expected to get here early in the day on August 4th," astronomer Leon Golub of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said in a statement. "It's the first major Earth-directed eruption in quite some time."

When particles hit the Earth's magnetic field, there is a spectacular light show.

Some Europeans and North Americans were lucky to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. But those of us in big cities, missed out.

While this solar storm may have looked pretty, it can cause major disruptions here on Earth.

Like the Icelandic volcano, it can disrupt air travel. Solar storms can also influence credit card transmissions, telemedicine systems, as well as radio and broadband connections.

In 1989, an infamous storm hit the power grid in Quebec and caused a nine-hour blackout. Months later, another storm disrupted trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

However, nothing really compares to the space storm of 1859.

"The question I get asked most often is, 'Could a perfect space storm happen again, and when?" NASA's Bruce Tsurutani said in a statement. "I tell people it could, and it could very well be even more intense than what transpired in 1859. As for when, we simply do not know."

According to The Week, a solar storm can release energy that is "a trillion times more powerful than the nuclear bomb that exploded over Hiroshima at the end of World War II." In fact, such a disruption could cause economic damage that is 20 times worse than the damage left by Hurricane Katrina.

That's why the Space Weather Prediction Center needs to know about these events coming from the sun, Golub said.

"Our electric components in satellites are susceptible to damage and astronauts are susceptible to radiation. We have a whole warning system, which is a lot like what is in place for a hurricane. We can tell when these eruptions are likely to happen and measure them on their way to Earth. We can determine what the more serious threats are and take protective action," he said.

So what about this current storm?

It was moderate. In other words, widespread disruptions weren't expected.

"Technically, there's a geomagnetic storm going on right now. It's the equivalent of a category hurricane 1," Golub said, adding that it peaked at a category hurricane 2 yesterday.

The Space Weather Prediction Center gave this geomagnetic storm a G2 rating. Storms ranked in this category can cause transformer damage, influence spacecraft operations, and disrupt HF radio propagation.

"We are much better prepared [than we were 20 years ago]," he said.

The ACE satellite measures the particles in the field 1 million miles from Earth. "It needs to be replaced, it's getting old," Golub said. It gives up to an hour warning and tells you if that event will be severe or not.

If necessary, you can shut down a satellite temporarily. If the particles hit the satellites while they are turned on, they can be damaged more severely.

"Now, the overall activity level is fairly low. We should see a maximum in a few years," Golub said.

The Quebec event was the equivalent of a category 5 storm. Generally, the sun produces events that big every three years. "It requires quite a bit of instrumentation on the ground and in space. Fortunately we have a good number of satellites in place to track and predict it," he said.

Golub has been studying solar storms for 35 years — he was fresh out of college. The first time he saw a solar storm was when he was in Cape Cod.

"I was stunned and had never seen the sky like that before," he said.

The same principle still applies. The light show is more visible in places away from big cities. Sorry city dwellers, you probably won't get much of a light show tonight.

In case you are wondering, this is the current Space Weather condition:

The solar storm of August 1st sent two CMEs toward Earth. The first one arrived yesterday, August 3rd, sparking mild but beautiful Northern Lights over Europe and North America. The second CME is still en route. NOAA forecasters estimate a 35% chance of major geomagnetic storms when the cloud arrives on August 4th or 5th. High-latitude sky watchers should remain alert for auroras.

Bottom Photo: Shawn Malone photographed this display over Lake Superior via Spaceweather.com

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure