New threats to our planet seem to arise more rapidly than ever before. Over the last months we have experienced several disastrous earthquakes, dangerous volcano eruptions, extremely powerful solar storms, and now NASA warns of a coming meteor shower that could destroy satellites, the International Space Station and the Hubble telescope.
“We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be.”
Yesterday, June 21th, as we experience the summer solstice – the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere – when the sun rises to its highest point in the sky, our nearby celestial fireball belted off one of the most spectacular explosions of the year, according to spaceweather.com.
I have not been able to verify this information with other sources, but this is what the article says:
“…the sunspot’s magnetic fields (the twisting, looping lines and arcs that are visible above and within a sunspot region) became unstable and erupted a massive cloud of magnetized plasma into space. The eruption cloud was so big, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory camera field of view couldn’t see it all. As you can see in the attached picture, it truly was an enormous eruption against the curvature of the sun.”
Fortunately for us, the direction of the eruption was not towards Earth. However, sunspot 1082 is growing rapidly, the Modern Survival Blog reports, and could present Earth with a different story in the days ahead.
We are currently transitioning up the parabola of the next 11 year sunspot cycle which is due to peak during 2012 – 2013.
On April 19th this year, NASA’s new Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) was able to film a massive eruption, reported to be one of the biggest in many years.
“SDO has just observed a massive eruption on the sun—one of the biggest in years,” says Lika Guhathakurta of NASA headquarters in Washington DC. “The footage is not only dramatic, but also could solve a longstanding mystery of solar physics.”
Karel Schrijver of Lockheed Martin’s Solar and Astrophysics Lab is leading the analysis:
“We can see a billion tons of magnetized plasma blasting into space while debris from the explosion falls back onto the sun surface. These may be our best data yet.”
The movie, recorded on April 19th, spans four hours of actual time and more than 100,000 km of linear space.
“It’s huge,” says Schrijver. Indeed, the entire planet Earth could fit between the plasma streamers with room to spare.
Astronomers have seen eruptions like this before, but rarely so large and never in such fluid detail.
Dick Fisher, the head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division in Washington DC, has been working in solar physics for nearly forty years.
“In all that time,” he says, “I’ve never seen images like this.”
More sunspots, flares, and eruptions will most likely be in the news in the months and years ahead, as some of them will have the potential to deal us a fatal blow as today’s modern technologies are dangerously vulnerable to the resultant EMP-type affect of a powerful X-class solar flare.
The biggest danger lies in our electrical grid high voltage lines which crisscross the land and act as a gigantic antenna which will absorb the pulse impact and blow out the system.
Scientists at NASA have been warning for some time of the dangers of space weather affecting the earth, and particularly the danger of solar storms.
“We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be“, Dr Richard Fisher, the director of Nasa’s Heliophysics division, told the Daily Telegraph, adding that preparations were similar to those in a hurricane season, where authorities knew a problem was imminent but did not know how serious it would be.
The match-up between the two cycles isn’t guaranteed every 22 years, because the 11-year solar cycle is only an average, and sometimes lasts 9, or sometimes lasts 13 years.
The last time it did, in 1859, it wasn’t such an issue because the earth wasn’t anywhere near as technologically developed.
This time, however, with a mobile phone in every pocket and a PC in every home, the damage could be more severe.
But the sun isn’t the only space problem we face over the next two, three years.
Satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station are under new threat from the most powerful meteor storm in more than a decade, NASA scientists warns.
NASA says the storm, which crosses the Earth’s orbit around the sun every October, comes from a meteor shower called the Draconids.
It has been given that name because the meteors appear to stream in from the direction of the constellation of Draco the Dragon.
Astronomers believe the seven-hour bombardment from the comet debris, due later next year, could strike orbiting spacecraft and wreck their electronics.
But the meteor shower risk assessment is actually more art than science, and there has been some variation in the projected intensity levels of the 2011 Draconids by meteoroid forecasters.
The scientists admitted last week they were unclear how serious the storm will be, but spacecraft operators were already being notified to develop defensive mechanisms.
As a result, NASA is currently investigating reorienting the international space station and Hubble space telescope to ensure vulnerable areas are turned away from the incoming sandblast, the UK Telegraph reports.
Dr William Cooke, from the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama, says contingency plans are already being developed to avoid problems when the storm is expected to hit.
His computer predictions conclude that several hundred meteors an hour could be visible from the earth on October 8 next year.
In early 2011, Cooke will be revising his Draconid prediction – also making use of data from other forecasters around the globe – which will be released to spacecraft operators.
“There’s also an awful lot of windage in there too,” Cooke adds. “We’re like the weather reporters…our forecast changes…and the general trend is always downward,” he says.
“We’re already working with (other) NASA programmes to deal with spacecraft risk. I imagine when the word gets out there will be a Draconid outburst, I’ll get the usual calls from … companies as well as government space programs.”
“If you are hit by a sporadic [meteor], it’s an act of God. If you are hit by a shower meteoroid, it’s an act of negligence,” Dr. Cooke concludes.
Still, caution is the watchword.
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- NASA Prepares for Potentially Damaging 2011 Meteor Shower (space.com)
- 2013 solar flares could cause major blackouts (sunbeltblog.blogspot.com)
- Aurora Australis PHOTO: Southern Lights Seen From Space (huffingtonpost.com)
- Sun’s strange behavior baffles astronomers (msnbc.msn.com)
- Massive Eruption Creates Magnetic Plasma ‘Rain’ on the Sun (space.com)
- As the Sun Awakens, NASA Keeps a Wary Eye on Space Weather (spacefellowship.com)