Article

Earth's magnetic fields protect us from most hazardous impacts of space weather.

Illustration courtesy NASA/SDO

NASAs Magic School Bus
NASAs Phil Chamberlin describes the Solar Dynamics Observatory: Its like this half school bus that has wings, he says. These two wings are solar panels. Thats how we get the energy to run.

By Stuart Thornton

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Since being launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on February 11, 2010, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has captured stunning images and video of the sun in action.

SDO is documenting solar events such as solar prominences, solar flares, coronal mass ejections and high-speed solar wind. A solar prominence is an enormous eruption of plasma from the sun’s surface. Solar prominences often appear as loops—some so large that several Earth-sized planets could fit inside. A solar flare is a blast of radiation associated with sunspots. A coronal mass ejection (CME) is a sudden release of gas bubbles and magnetic fields from the sun’s atmosphere. Solar wind is the constant ejection of electrically charged particles from the sun.

These features can wreak havoc on technology on Earth in a phenomenon known as space weather.

“Space weather, in a nutshell, is the conditions in the space environment that we are interested in because they have impacts on the health and safety of equipment and humans in space and on the ground,” says Michael Hesse, chief of the Space Weather Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

According to Phil Chamberlin, a NASA research astrophysicist and one of the deputy project scientists for SDO, space weather can be quite a nuisance here on Earth. “It mostly influences technology,” he says. “It could affect our GPS [global positioning systems] and how accurate it is. It could actually render it useless. That’s something a lot of people are becoming very dependent upon.”

On aircrafts flying above Earth’s polar regions, crew members rely on high-frequency radio for communication. Some space weather events have created radio blackouts for several days in polar areas.

Hesse says that in extreme cases, space weather can lead to a disruption in the power grid. In 1989, space weather caused 6 million people in Quebec, Canada, to lose electrical power for more than nine hours.

Space weather could have been a grave danger for astronauts who went into space as part of NASA’s Apollo missions between 1968 and 1972. “Historically, we have been very lucky, because we didn’t know these effects during the Apollo era,” Hesse says. “In the worst case scenario, astronauts could have gotten seriously injured on these trips if one of those major events had happened.”

Living with a Star

Chamberlin says learning more about space weather is one of the observatory’s primary missions.

“It [SDO] is part of NASA’s ‘Living with a Star’ program,” he says. “So it’s not only to understand the sun, but it’s living with a star and understanding how the sun influences us on Earth.”

Instead of having a hard drive to store images and video of the sun, SDO is constantly streaming data—equivalent to half a million songs from iTunes every day—to a ground station in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“We get pretty much an image every second,” Chamberlin says, adding that the picture quality “is 10 times better than high-definition television.”

SDO gives NASA’s scientists massive amounts of new information about the sun.

“For the first time, we have the full sun, all the time, every second,” Chamberlin says. “There are no data gaps in this. We’re seeing that very often, one flare will trigger another flare all the way on the other side of the sun. We don’t know what actually is the root cause of this and how these things are connected, but we are trying to get the statistics to know that they are.”

The data gleaned from SDO are more than just pretty pictures of solar events. Hesse is hoping the data can help scientists at the Space Weather Laboratory better forecast space weather.

“The benefit that we get from this is that we can determine with really good accuracy where on the surface of the sun the eruption occurred,” he says. “If you want to find out where it is going in space, to know where it started out from is extremely helpful.”

Hesse says space weather forecasts are made using data from SDO and the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO). STEREO is a NASA program that uses two space-based observatories to gather information about the sun. 

“We are looking every day at the STEREO spacecraft and at SDO to basically know are there any active regions or regions of strong magnetic fields where energy is being stored that can lead to eruptions,” he says. “You develop all the time a feeling for what an active region looks like that can lead to an eruption. . . . We are still really at the scientific forefront here trying to understand how an eruption actually happens and what makes it happen and when is it going to happen.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

accurate

Adjective

exact.

Apollo Program

Noun

(1960-1975) NASA program of space flights with a goal of humans going to the moon and back.

astronaut

Noun

person who takes part in space flights.

astrophysicist

Noun

person who studies the relationship between matter, energy, motion, and force outside the Earth's atmosphere.

atmosphere

Noun

layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere

coronal mass ejection

Noun

huge burst of solar wind and other charged particles.

data

Plural Noun

(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

equipment

Noun

tools and materials to perform a task or function.

equivalent

Adjective

roughly equal or the same as something else.

forecast

Verb

to predict, especially the weather.

gas

Noun

state of matter with no fixed shape that will fill any container uniformly. Gas molecules are in constant, random motion.

glean

Verb

to learn little-by-little or piece-by-piece.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

Noun

system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.

Goddard Space Flight Center

Noun

(established 1959) NASA space research laboratory.

grave

Adjective

very serious.

hard drive

Noun

computer device that reads, writes, and stores data on hard disks. Also called a hard disk drive.

high-frequency radio

Noun

(3-30 megahertz) range of radio frequencies used for medium- and long-range communication. Also known as the decameter band for the length of its radio wavesabout one to ten decameters.

Living with a Star

Noun

NASA program that studies parts of the Earth-sun relationship that may affect life and society.

magnetic field

Noun

area around and affected by a magnet or charged particle.

megapixel

Noun

one million pixels.

NASA

Noun

(acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration) U.S. agency responsible for space research and systems.

nuisance

Noun

an annoying or bothersome thing.

particle

Noun

small piece of material.

phenomenon

Noun

an unusual act or occurrence.

pixel

Noun

smallest part of an image displayed on an electronic screen.

planet

Noun

large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.

Encyclopedic Entry: planet

plasma

Noun

state of matter with no fixed shape and molecules separated into ions and electrons.

polar

Adjective

having to do with the North and/or South Pole.

power grid

Noun

network of cables or other devices through which electricity is delivered to consumers. Also called an electrical grid.

primary

Adjective

first or most important.

radiation

Noun

energy, emitted as waves or particles, radiating outward from a source.

radio blackout

Noun

lack of some or all radio signals, especially between Earth and spacecraft caused by space weather. Also called a communications blackout.

render

Verb

to make, or cause to become.

scenario

Noun

predicted sequence of events.

Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)

Noun

NASA mission designed to understand the causes of solar variability and its impacts on Earth.

solar flare

Noun

explosion in the sun's atmosphere, which releases a burst of energy and charged particles into the solar system.

solar prominence

Noun

huge eruption of cool gases from the surface of the sun, often shaped like a giant loop.

Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO)

Noun

NASA mission involving two spacecraft that observe the sun and the solar environment.

solar wind

Noun

flow of charged particles, mainly protons and electrons, from the sun to the edge of the solar system.

space weather

Noun

changes in the environment outside the Earth's atmosphere, usually influenced by the sun.

Space Weather Laboratory

Noun

NASA project that conducts space-based, ground-based, theoretical, and modeling studies of the chain of events that triggers space-weather effects of interest to NASA, other U.S. government agencies, and the general public.

sun

Noun

star at the center of our solar system.

sunspot

Noun

dark, cooler area on the surface of the sun that can move, change, and disappear over time.

technology

Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

wreak

Verb

to inflict or bring about something painful.

Credits

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Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editors

Kara West
Jeannie Evers

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

National Geographic Program

Wildest Weather in the Solar System

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