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S P E C I A L CNN In-Depth: - Space

Satellite sheds light on solar storms

SOHO
Soho orbits between the Earth and the sun   
December 9, 1997
Web posted at: 9:53 a.m. EST (1453 GMT)

(CNN) -- Soho, a satellite parked in orbit between the Earth and the sun, has produced compelling pictures of solar eruptions and has helped scientists predict nine out of 10 geomagnetic storms in the past year.

The images provided by Soho offer a new understanding of how these violent explosions in the sun's atmosphere disrupt life on the planet, causing everything from noisy phone calls to power outages. Soho is an acronym for Solar Heliospheric Observatory.

CNN's Don Knapp reports
icon 2 min., 2 sec. VXtreme streaming video

Coronal mass ejections, as the eruptions are called, generate magnetic storms on Earth sometimes strong enough to shut down electrical power systems and interfere with communications.

"When you look close to the surface, you see coronal mass ejections invariably occur in regions of neighboring magnetic fields," said Spiro Antiochos of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

Like tethers on a hot air balloon, smaller magnetic fields hold back a larger field until the tethers break and a huge chunk of the sun erupts into space, taking with it a huge coiled magnetic field that might look like a child's Slinky toy.

The sun

If the Earth's magnetic field is properly aligned with the sun, the sun and the Earth make magnetic contact.

And when they connect, what happens?

"It allows solar wind energy to get into the near-Earth environment and make storms," said Nancy Crooker of the Center for Space Physics at Boston University. "We're wired to the sun."

The contact may last 10 to 12 hours.

See pictures from Soho
video icon 801K/17 sec./240x180
465K/17 sec./160x120
QuickTime movie

"It interacts with the Earth's magnetic field and connects. It gets carried around the system, into the tail, dumped in there and you see it pulsating because all that power's being dumped in there," said Chuck Goodrich of the University of Maryland's astronomy department.

Crooker said Soho's ability to predict the storms is the "big news."

"We can see them coming toward us," Crooker said.

Correspondent Don Knapp contributed to this report.

 
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