Watching the Angry Sun
Solar physicists are enjoying their best-ever look
at a Solar Maximum thanks to NOAA and NASA satellites.
December 22, 2000 --As the Sun's stormy season approaches its zenith, solar scientists have the best seat in the house, using the largest coordinated fleet of spacecraft and ground observatories ever assembled to observe these angry outbursts of solar radiation and predict the impact of turbulent space weather.
According to scientists from NASA and NOAA, the Sun is near the peak of its 11-year cycle of activity. Solar maximum is the two-to-three year period around that peak when the Sun's activity is most tempestuous and the Earth is buffeted with powerful solar gusts.
Above: Solar maximum is the two-to-three year period around that peak when the Sun's activity is most complex and turbulent, and the space around Earth is most disturbed. Notice the dramatic changes in the Sun's atmosphere from solar minimum in 1996 (left image) to solar maximum in 2000 (right image). These false color images were captured by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory's (SOHO) Extreme Ultraviolet Telescope (EIT) camera. Credit: NASA/ESA
"This is a unique solar maximum in history," said
Dr. George Withbroe, Science Director for NASA's Sun-Earth Connection
Program. "The images and data are beyond the wildest expectations
of the astronomers of a generation ago."
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The coordinated use of NASA and NOAA technology was key in tracking and predicting the development of an intense solar storm nicknamed the "Bastille Day Event." With data from ground-based observatories, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory - a joint project of the European Space Agency and NASA - and NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, scientists were able to anticipate a bright solar flare and ensuing energetic proton shower July 13.
The flare coincided with a coronal mass ejection (CME) which sent billions of tons of plasma into space traveling at 4 million miles per hour, two times faster than normal.
NOAA forecasters, using data from the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), typically can provide about one hour notice of prospective magnitude before the start of a geomagnetic storm. But the July solar shower blinded key ACE detectors. Without reliable data, scientists and forecasters had to wait until Earth's magnetic field became distorted before they knew that the disturbance had arrived.
A G5 geomagnetic storm - the most intense classification - raged for nearly nine hours after the solar shower's impact.
The effects of the July storm were widespread. Cameras and star-tracking navigation devices on several satellites were flooded with solar particles. Measurements from particle detectors and other instruments on several NOAA and NASA spacecraft were either degraded or temporarily shut down. The Japanese Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA) was sent tumbling in orbit.
On the ground, auroral light shows were seen as far south as El Paso, TX. Power companies suffered geomagnetically induced currents that tripped capacitors and damaged at least one transformer. Global positioning system (GPS) accuracy was degraded for several hours. "The July event was a surprise to some of our customers," Hildner said. "They haven't seen this kind of activity for nearly a decade."
A number of international spacecraft provided extensive data and images showing the development and character of the July event. "The next generation of solar missions will complement and improve upon what scientists are learning from the existing fleet, Withbroe said. "This will provide us with even more capability to understand and ultimately predict solar weather and its effect on Earth."
NOAA Space Environment Center -- updates and forecasts of solar and geomagnetic activity
SpaceWeather.com -- news about solar activity, auroras, meteor showers, comets, and near-Earth asteroids
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory -- find out what the Sun looks like right now!
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Source: NASA Press
Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
Media Relations: Steve Roy
Responsible NASA official: John M. Horack