NASA Prepares For Impact – Nasty Space Weather Ahead

On Tuesday days top scientist met with authorities in Washington to prepare for possible emergency measures due to a sharp increase in solar activity. According to NASA the sun and the earth is about to come into contact in a way that’s new to human history. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The impact could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

“I believe we’re on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather.”

Richard Fisher

“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss,” the head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, Richard Fisher says on the space centers website.

On Tuesday, scientist from NASA, The National Academy of Sciences and The Space Weather Enterprise Forum met with authorities at the National Press Club in Washington for the fourth time.

Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, explains the purpose of the meetings:

“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss.”

Solar storms occur when sunspots on our star erupt and spew out flumes of charged particles that can damage power systems.

The sun’s activity typically follows an 11-year cycle, and it looks to be coming out of a slump and gearing up for an active period.

The National Academy of Sciences framed the problem two years ago in a landmark report entitled “Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts.”

(Full 2008 report can be downloaded here for free)

It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life.

Total Knock-Out

Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity.

A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

Much of the damage can be mitigated if managers know a storm is coming.

Putting satellites in ‘safe mode’ and disconnecting transformers can protect these assets from damaging electrical surges.

Preventative action, however, requires accurate forecasting—a job that has been assigned to NOAA.

“Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we’re making rapid progress,” says Thomas Bogdan, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Bogdan sees the collaboration between NASA and NOAA as key.

“NASA’s fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft provides us with up-to-the-minute information about what’s happening on the sun. They are an important complement to our own GOES and POES satellites, which focus more on the near-Earth environment.”

Among dozens of NASA spacecraft, he notes three of special significance: STEREO, SDO and ACE.

STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) is a pair of spacecraft stationed on opposite sides of the sun with a combined view of 90% of the stellar surface.

In the past, active sunspots could hide out on the sun’s far-side, invisible from Earth, and then suddenly emerge over the limb spitting flares and CMEs. STEREO makes such surprise attacks impossible, they claim.

Click on the image to play a 39 MB movie about space weather and  NASA's heliophysics fleet.

Click on the image to play a 39 MB movie about space weather and NASA's heliophysics fleet.

SDO (the Solar Dynamics Observatory) is the newest addition to NASA’s fleet. Just launched in February, it is able to photograph solar active regions with unprecedented spectral, temporal and spatial resolution.

Researchers can now study eruptions in exquisite detail, raising hopes that they will learn how flares work and how to predict them.

SDO also monitors the sun’s extreme UV output, which controls the response of Earth’s atmosphere to solar variability.

Bogdan’s favorite NASA satellite, however, is an old one: the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) launched in 1997.

“Where would we be without it?” he wonders. ACE is a solar wind monitor.

It sits upstream between the sun and Earth, detecting solar wind gusts, billion-ton CMEs, and radiation storms as much as 30 minutes before they hit our planet.

“ACE is our best early warning system,” says Bogdan. “It allows us to notify utility and satellite operators when a storm is about to hit.”

NASA spacecraft were not originally intended for operational forecasting—“but it turns out that our data have practical economic and civil uses,” NASA’s Richard Fisher notes.

“This is a good example of space science supporting modern society.”

“We take this very seriously”

2010 marks the 4th year in a row that policymakers, researchers, legislators and reporters have gathered in Washington DC to share ideas about space weather.

This year, forum organizers plan to sharpen the focus on critical infrastructure protection.

The ultimate goal is to improve the nation’s ability to prepare, mitigate, and respond to potentially devastating space weather events.

“I believe we’re on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather.” Fisher concludes.

“We take this very seriously indeed.”

Space Weather Enterprise Forum – home page

NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center

Severe Space Weather, Social and Economic Consequences (Science@NASA)

Unknown Impact

And there is no doubt that NASA and other space scientist takes this very serious – and they have very good reason to.

The fact is that no one can predict the impact of extreme solar activity, and a really powerful solar storm.

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“A very large coronal mass ejection from the sun that could cause a super solar storm if it should hit the earth might wipe out the global money system within minutes from impact. Stock exchanges would not operate, banking systems would not function, and both credit cards and ATM machines would stop working. We could find ourselves without the use of our modern electronic forms of money for months and possibly years,” Dr. Espen Gaarder Haug writes in a research paper released April 18th this year.

“And yet, even in a catastrophic scenario where water pumps, power plants, public transportation, and other infrastructural assets that are essential to contemporary life had failed, some type of functioning money system would be required to keep the basic necessities, such as food and medical supplies flowing without too much friction,” he adds.

“I am not a doomsayer. I do not predict that a super solar storm will hit us tomorrow, the day after tomorrow or next year, or even the year after that. The probability for a severe solar storm hitting the earth the next few years based on our limited amount of historical data seems to be low. However, it is probably higher than most people would imagine.”

You’ll find the article and a copy of Dr.Haug’s research paper here.

Is Sunlight Changing?

According to Author and researcher Mitch Battros, new scientific findings about suggest a charge in the sunlight particles coming toward us from within the Milky Way galaxy.

Charged particles that we call solar flares or coronal mass ejections “have an intricate interaction with Earth” that can affect our magnetic field and weather, he says.

In this video Mr. Battros discuss a variety of Earth changes and environmental issues including the hurricane season, the BP oil spill, as well as the implications of Solar Cycle 24 and Mayan prophecy.

Related by the The Swapper:

When Will God Destroy Our Money?

Will God Destroy Our Money or Will We Do It First?

Sun Spots To Cool Down The Markets?

Earthquake May Have Shortened Days on Earth

Mother Earth On Crack

“Mini Ice Age” Underway?

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