Story Highlights• New solar scopes give Earth satellites advance warning of storms
• Storms can disable satellites, burn out transformers, and take down power grids
• STEREO satellites help scientists determine whether a storm is headed for Earth
Adjust font size:
(PopSci.com) -- Last December, a colossal wave swept across the entire solar surface within minutes, bulldozing everything in its path. The rare tsunami-like shockwave formed on the heels of a major flare that erupted from an Earth-size sunspot 15 minutes earlier.
Though that storm didn't have a major impact on Earth, we aren't always so lucky. The Earth's magnetic shield protects us from the worst effects of solar storms (and even astronauts on the International Space Station can take cover in a heavily shielded module), but technology suffers greatly.
Atmospheric and magnetic fluctuations that the storms cause can also disable satellites, burn out transformers, and take down power grids. One CME in 1989 left all of Quebec without power for nine hours.
The frequency and intensity of storms varies depending on the solar season, which waxes and wanes in 11-year cycles. We will soon be entering into a new season of high solar activity, and experts predict -- by crunching data on the long-term behavior of the sun's convection currents -- that it will be the stormiest in half a century.
Though we can't yet predict such storms, it's only a matter of time. Space-weather forecasters use satellites and ground-based scopes to monitor sunspots for flares and CMEs but can't tell with certainty if or when they will hit Earth.
The STEREO satellites will help scientists determine whether a particular storm is headed for us and, hopefully, will give satellite and energy-grid minders enough warning to prepare for a hit.
How solar storms work:
Strong solar storms can cause havoc to Earth satellites.
Quick Job Search