Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Strongest Solar Storm Since 2005 Hitting Earth


WASHINGTON - Associated Press

This January 19, 2012 image provided by NASA shows an M3.2 solar flare captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). An earth-directed coronal mass ejection was associated with the solar flare. AFP photo
This January 19, 2012 image provided by NASA shows an M3.2 solar flare captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). An earth-directed coronal mass ejection was associated with the solar flare. AFP photo
The sun is bombarding Earth with radiation from the biggest solar storm in more than six years with more to come from the fast-moving eruption.

The solar flare occurred at about 0400 GMT Sunday and will hit Earth with three different effects at three different times. The biggest issue is radiation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado.

The radiation is mostly a concern for satellite disruptions and astronauts in space. It can cause communication problems for polar-traveling airplanes, said space weather center physicist Doug Biesecker.

Radiation from Sunday's flare arrived at Earth an hour later and will likely continue through Wednesday. Levels are considered strong but other storms have been more severe. There are two higher levels of radiation on NOAA's storm scale "severe and extreme" Biesecker said. Still, this storm is the strongest for radiation since May 2005.

The radiation, in the form of protons, came flying out of the sun at 150 million kilometers per hour. "The whole volume of space between here and Jupiter is just filled with protons and you just don't get rid of them like that," Biesecker said. That's why the effects will stick around for a couple days.

NASA's flight surgeons and solar experts examined the solar flare's expected effects and decided that the six astronauts on the International Space Station do not have to do anything to protect themselves from the radiation, spokesman Rob Navias said.


AP photo
A solar eruption is followed by a one-two-three punch, said Antti Pulkkinen, a physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Catholic University.

First comes electromagnetic radiation, followed by radiation in the form of protons.

Then, finally the coronal mass ejection - that's the plasma from the sun itself - hits. Usually that travels at about 1,6 or 3.2 million kilometers per hour, but this storm is particularly speedy and is shooting out at 6 million kilometers per hour, Biesecker said.

It's the plasma that causes much of the noticeable problems on Earth, such as electrical grid outages. In 1989, a solar storm caused a massive blackout in Quebec. It can also pull the northern lights farther south.

But this coronal mass ejection seems likely to be only moderate, with a chance for becoming strong, Biesecker said. The worst of the storm is likely to go north of Earth.

And unlike last October, when a freak solar storm caused auroras to be seen as far south as could see an aurora but not until Tuesday evening, he said.

For the past several years the sun had been quiet, almost too quiet. Part of that was the normal calm part of the sun's 11-year cycle of activity. Last year, scientists started to speculate that the sun was going into an unusually quiet cycle that seems to happen maybe once a century or so.

Now that super-quiet cycle does not seem as likely, Biesecker said.

Scientists watching the sun with a new NASA satellite launched in 2010 - during the sun's quiet period - are excited.

"We haven't had anything like this for a number of years," Pulkkinen said. "It's kind of special."
January/24/2012



Flights rerouted as massive solar storm slams Earth
WASHINGTON — Solar radiation from a massive sun storm -- the largest in nearly a decade -- collided with the Earth's atmosphere, prompting an airline to reroute flights and skywatchers to seek out spectacular light displays.
US carrier Delta Air Lines said it had adjusted flight routes for transpolar journeys between Asia and the United States to avoid problems caused by the radiation storm, a spokesman said.
NASA confirmed the coronal mass ejection (CME) began colliding with Earth's magnetic field around 10:00 AM (1500 GMT) Tuesday, adding that the storm was now being considered the largest since October 2003.
Radiation storms are not harmful to humans, on Earth at least, according to the US space agency. They can, however, affect satellite operations and short wave radio.
The storm's radiation, likely to continue bombarding Earth's atmosphere through Wednesday, and its possible disruption to satellite communications in the polar regions prompted the flight rerouting, airline officials said.
Atlanta-based Delta, the world's second largest airline, said "a handful" of routes had their journey adjusted "based on potential impact" of the solar storm on communications equipment, spokesman Anthony Black told AFP.
Routes from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul took a more southerly route after the solar flare erupted on Sunday.
The airline said it would continue to monitor solar activity before return flights to their normal routes.
Due to the unusual intensity of the photons raining on Earth, the spectacular aurora borealis -- the stunning "Northern Lights" display -- which is often seen closer to the Arctic pole at this time of year, has been seen as far south as Scotland and northern England, and at lower latitudes in the United States.
The event started late Sunday with a moderate-sized solar flare that erupted right near the center of the Sun, said Doug Biesecker, a physicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center.
"The flare itself was nothing spectacular, but it sent off a very fast coronal mass ejection traveling four million miles per hour (6.4 million kilometers per hour)," he told AFP.
Space weather watchers said the best aurora sightings are normally around midnight local time.
Rob Stammes, who runs the Lofoten Polar Light Centre in Lofoten, Norway said the CME's arrival Tuesday had produced a surge in ground currents outside his laboratory.
"This could be a happy day for many aurora watchers," he told aurora tracker websitespaceweather.com