Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Space weather: Fine, with a chance of solar flares

A mid-level flare erupted on the left side of the sun on July 8, 2014. This image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory highlights the high-temperature solar material in a flare, which is typically colorized in teal. A mid-level flare erupted on the left side of the sun on July 8, 2014. This image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory highlights the high-temperature solar material in a flare, which is typically colorized in teal.
HIDE CAPTION
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
Spectacular solar flares
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Space Weather Prediction Center watches skies for solar activity
  • Coronal mass ejections can disrupt satellites and power grids
  • The sun is at its "solar maximum" -- but its activity is described as "modest"

The Art of Movement is a monthly show that highlights the most significant innovations in science and technology that are helping shape our modern world. Go inside "The Space Race" Thursday night on CNN's Original Series, "The Sixties."

Boulder, Colorado (CNN) -- From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.

Flares that light up the galaxy and eruptions that can be as large as 30 times the Earth's surface occur regularly. During the peak of the 11-year solar cycle, these events can happen several times a day.

The flares and eruptions are collectively known as space weather and although they create dazzling visuals in space, it isn't just a harmless fireworks show for the galaxy. Each burst of energy can have a disrupting effect on systems we rely on every day.

With their headquarters next to the Rocky Mountains in the state of Colorado, a team of forecasters aims to minimize that impact.

"The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) essentially watches the sun, watches for activity on the sun originating from sun spots," explains Bob Rutledge, Forecast Office lead.

"That's really where the magnetic fields of the sun poke through the surface and kind of hold that part of the surface in place allowing it to cool -- that's why it appears dark."



Gas rolls up and down the sun's outer layer, similar to the bubbles in boiling water. When the magnetic field around a sun spot breaks, magnetic energy explodes in the solar atmosphere like a pot boiling over.

The size and position of sun spots can give forecasters a clue as to when or where a solar flare may bubble up. They produce daily forecasts that are important to the industries most vulnerable.

"Space weather can have a variety of impacts across many different customer bases -- commercial aviation, precision GPS use, power grid operations -- all these are really critical," says Rutledge.

Zero gravity training with NASA
What's it like to maneuver NASA's Curiosity rover?

Read this: Capturing the cosmos -- stunning photos of the night sky

The sun is currently at its "solar maximum" -- the point in its cycle where it is at peak activity -- but the SWPC says that activity is modest compared to recent cycles.

Nonetheless, last week the center reported that the sun had produced a "moderate-level" solar flare, which had "short-lived impacts to high frequency radio communications on the sunlit side of Earth."

Solar flares can send blasts of radiation through space that can interfere with satellites and even harm astronauts during spacewalks.

"So when an eruption happens -- when we have that flash of light, those radio waves -- that takes eight minutes to get from the sun to the Earth. So as soon as we start the measurement, it's already affecting the sunlit side of the Earth," explains Rutledge.

Innovations in spacecraft by NASA are showing us some of the best images of the sun we've ever seen -- giving us a clearer picture and hopefully a better understanding of space weather.

But there is still much mystery to the 4.5 billion-year-old star and the emissions that are blasted through space, so scientists and forecasters will continue to watch every movement.

Read this: Capturing the cosmos -- stunning photos of the night sky

Mars Curiosity: Take a look under the hood

Watch: Zero gravity training with NASA

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Jason Hullinger, a computer security architect in Los Angeles, went to Joshua Tree National Park in December to catch the Geminid meteor shower.
For thousands of years, man has looked to the stars in search of answers. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we alone?
updated 11:51 AM EDT, Sun June 29, 2014
NASA's new flying saucer-shaped spacecraft has made its maiden flight.
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide took this breathtaking selfie during Expedition 32 on September 5, 2012.
He may be best known for his part in the historic Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, but did you know Buzz Aldrin snapped the "first space selfie?"
updated 5:33 AM EST, Tue November 12, 2013
Introducing GimBall -- a flying robot modeled on insects, which may change search and rescue missions forever.
updated 6:39 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
If you were the second person to set foot on the moon, what would you be worried about? For Buzz Aldrin -- it was a locked door. Find out why.
updated 5:06 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Man has been making images of the moon for millennia. Explore our gallery of some of the most eye-catching creations.
shakespeare moon illustration
The moon has always had a powerful grip on our imagination. Here's how the likes of Shakespeare and Twain have taken inspiration from this midnight muse.
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
CNN's Becky Anderson looks at how practicing underwater is the perfect way to prepare for spacewalks.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
solar flare july 2014
From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Inventor Glenn Martin admits he appears crazy -- "But it's the crazy people who change the world."
ADVERTISEMENT