Tag Archives: Coronal mass ejection

Strongest Solar Storm Since 2003, Flights Rerouted

The strongest solar storm since 2003 started last Monday – a wave of charged particles from an intense solar flare eruption is now raising alerts about airline flights and satellite operations. The solar flares did not make a direct hit on the Earth, but several flights were rerouted last week and scientists are not sure if there will be more to come.

“The chance for re-intensification is still possible because this active spot on the sun that created the initial havoc could go off again.”

Harlan Spence

The storm began when a powerful solar flare erupted on the sun Monday, blasting a stream of charged particles toward our planet. This electromagnetic burst — called a coronal mass ejection, or CME — started hitting Earth somewhere around 10 a.m. ET Tuesday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Experts at the center says that solar radiation levels were at their highest point since the Halloween storms of 2003.

Earlier estimates ranked the storm as the strongest since 2005 in terms of solar radiation, but Terry Onsager, a physicist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, said that when the wave of charged particles arrived, “that took it from below the 2005 event to above the 2005 event,” msnbc.com reports.

Bill Murtagh, the center’s program coordinator, said that the outburst was forcing airlines to change routes for some of their scheduled flights. “Most of the major airlines flying polar [routes], or even some non-polar, high-altitude routes, have taken action to mitigate the effect of this storm,” he says.

Airline Alert

Delta Air Lines reported that it altered routes for “a handful” of flights, and that the changes added about 15 minutes to travel times.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black told Reuters that solar activity “can impact your ability to communicate … so basically, the polar routes are being flown further south than normal.”

United Airlines says one flight was diverted on Monday, while American Airlines says it has seen no operational impact from the storm so far but was monitoring the situation.

As powerful as it is, the storm should have no effect on daily life for most people, msnbc.com writes.

No Direct Hit

When a coronal mass ejection hits Earth, it can trigger potentially harmful geomagnetic storms as the charged particles shower down the planet’s magnetic field lines.

This can amp up normal displays of Earth’s auroras (also known as the northern and southern lights), but a strong CME aimed directly at Earth can also cause disruptions to satellites in orbit, as well as power grids and communications infrastructures on the ground.

Monday’s solar flare set off an extremely fast-moving CME, but the ejected cloud of plasma and charged particles was not directly aimed at Earth and hit the planet at an angle instead.

This glancing blow would likely lessen any impacts on Earth,

Earth’s magnetic field served as a shield, and pretty much shielded the radiation so that it doesn’t penetrate that deep,” Yihua Zheng, a lead researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center says.

“It’s like a car collision: head-on or off to the side. A CME is like that too. For this one, if it was a direct hit, Earth would receive a much stronger impact. This one was on an angle — toward higher latitudes and a little off the ecliptic — otherwise it would be a much stronger impact.”

Several NASA satellites, including the Solar Dynamics Observatory, the Solar Heliospheric Observatory and the STEREO spacecraft, observed the massive sun storm.

Data from these spacecraft were combined to help scientists create models to calculate when and where the CME was going to hit Earth.

“A CME is kind of like a space hurricane,” Zheng says. “You have to predict how it will form and evolve. From the models, we can see which spacecraft will be in its path, and what will be impacted.”

At the Space Weather Center, scientists reported that the CME began interacting with Earth’s magnetic field at 9:31 a.m. ET. “We predicted it would arrive at 9:18 a.m., and in reality, it arrived at 9:31 a.m., so ours has a 13-minute error,” Zheng adds. “Usually for this kind of model, the average error is seven hours, so this is the best case.”

Subside or Intensify?

At NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center they say the level of solar radiation should gradually subside — unless the sun unleashes another big coronal mass ejection. “The expectation is that it will weaken and that it will decay over the next couple of days,” NOAA representatives told msnbc.com.

The University of New Hampshire’s astrophysicist Harlan Spence says “the chance for re-intensification is still possible because this active spot on the sun that created the initial havoc could go off again.”

The solar flare associated with this week’s storm was estimated to be an M9-class eruption, which placed it teetering on the edge of being an X-class flare, the most powerful type of solar storm. M-class sun storms are powerful but midrange, while C-class flares are weaker.

The flare erupted from sunspot 1402, a region near the meridian of the sun that has been active for a while now, according to NASA.

The powerful solar storm could be signaling that the sun is waking up after an extended period of relative dormancy.

The sun’s activity waxes and wanes on an 11-year cycle.

The star is currently in the midst of Solar Cycle 24, and activity is expected to continue ramping up toward the solar maximum in 2013.

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Solar Activity Heats Up, Sunspots Return

Back in 2008, the solar cycle plunged into the deepest minimum in nearly a century. Sunspots all but vanished, solar flares subsided, and the sun was eerily quiet. But now things are starting to happen, scientists says.

“Finally,we are beginning to see some action.”

Richard Fisher


If you’ve ever stood in front of a hot stove, watching a pot of water and waiting impatiently for it to boil, you know what it feels like to be a solar physicist.

“Ever since, we’ve been waiting for solar activity to pick up,” says Richard Fisher, head of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. “It’s been three long years.”

Quiet spells on the sun are nothing new.

They come along every 11 years or so — it’s a natural part of the solar cycle.

This particular solar minimum, however, was lasting longer than usual, prompting some researchers to wonder if it would ever end.

News flash: The pot is starting to boil.

“Finally,” says Fisher, “we are beginning to see some action.”


As 2011 unfolds, sunspots have returned and they are crackling with activity.

On February 15th and again on March 9th, Earth orbiting satellites detected a pair of “X-class” solar flares–the most powerful kind of x-ray flare.

The last such eruption occurred back in December 2006.

Another eruption on March 7th hurled a billion-ton cloud of plasma away from the sun at five million mph (2200 km/s).

This is a Solar Heliospheric Observatory chronograph of the fast coronal mass ejection of March 7, 2011, with a Solar Dynamics Observatory 304 angstrom solar image overlaid. (Credit: Naval Research Lab/Karl Battams)

The rapidly expanding cloud wasn’t aimed directly at Earth, but it did deliver a glancing blow to our planet’s magnetic field.

The off-center impact on March 10th was enough to send Northern Lights spilling over the Canadian border into US states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.

“That was the fastest coronal mass ejection in almost six years,” says Angelos Vourlidas of the Naval Research Lab in Washington DC.

“It reminds me of a similar series of events back in Nov. 1997 that kicked off Solar Cycle 23, the solar cycle before this one.”

“To me,” says Vourlidas, “this marks the beginning of Solar Cycle 24.”

The slow build-up to this moment is more than just “the watched pot failing to boil,” says Ron Turner, a space weather analyst at Analytic Services, Inc.

“It really has been historically slow.”

There have been 24 numbered solar cycles since researchers started keeping track of them in the mid-18th century.

In an article just accepted for publication by the Space Weather Journal, Turner shows that, in all that time, only four cycles have started more slowly than this one.

“Three of them were in the Dalton Minimum, a period of depressed solar activity in the early 19th century. The fourth was Cycle #1 itself, around 1755, also a relatively low solar cycle,” he says.

In his study, Turner used sunspots as the key metric of solar activity.

Folding in the recent spate of sunspots does not substantially alter his conclusion: “Solar Cycle 24 is a slow starter,” he says.

Well, better late than never, I suppose…

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Check out the solar activity here – live data by Wolfram Research

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NASA: Solar Tsunami To Hit Earth, Tuesday

On August 1th, the entire Earth-facing side of the sun erupted in a tumult of activity. There was a C3-class solar flare, a solar tsunami, multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface, large-scale shaking of the solar corona, radio bursts, a coronal mass ejection and more. When the cloud hits, which could be anytime now, it could spark aurorae in the skies around the poles and pose a threat to satellites.

“This eruption is directed right at us.”

Leon Golub


The earth could be hit by a wave of violent space weather as early as Tuesday after a massive explosion on the sun, scientists have warned. The solar fireworks at the weekend were recorded by several satellites, including NASA’s new Solar Dynamics Observatory which watched its shock wave rippling outwards.

Astronomers from all over the world witnessed the huge flare above a giant sunspot the size of the Earth, which they linked to an even larger eruption across the surface of Sun.

The explosion, called a coronal mass ejection, was aimed directly towards Earth, which then sent a “solar tsunami” racing 93 million miles across space.

Images from the SDO hint at a shock wave traveling from the flare into space, the New Scientist reported.

Experts says the wave of supercharged gas will likely reach the Earth on Tuesday, when it will buffet the natural magnetic shield protecting Earth.

It is likely to spark spectacular displays of the aurora or northern and southern lights.

“This eruption is directed right at us,” said Leon Golub, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

“It’s the first major Earth-directed eruption in quite some time.”

Scientists have warned that a really big solar eruption could destroy satellites and wreck power and communications grids around the globe if it happened today.

NASA recently warned that Britain could face widespread power blackouts and be left without critical communication signals for long periods of time, after the earth is hit by a once-in-a-generation “space storm”.

The Daily Telegraph disclosed in June that senior space agency scientists believed the Earth will be hit with unprecedented levels of magnetic energy from solar flares after the Sun wakes “from a deep slumber” sometime around 2013.

It remains unclear, however, how much damage this latest eruption will cause the world’s communication tools.

Here’s Sunday’s explotion, video by New Scientist:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

On August 1st, the entire Earth-facing side of the sun erupted in a tumult of activity. There was a C3-class solar flare, a solar tsunami, multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface, large-scale shaking of the solar corona, radio bursts, a coronal mass ejection and more.

Click on the image to view just a fraction of the action:

(video from spaceweather.com)

Wonderful Fireworks

Dr Lucie Green, of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Surrey, followed the flare-ups using Japan’s orbiting Hinode telescope.

“What wonderful fireworks the Sun has been producing,” the UK solar expert says.

“This was a very rare event – not one, but two almost simultaneous eruptions from different locations on the sun were launched toward the Earth.”

“These eruptions occur when immense magnetic structures in the solar atmosphere lose their stability and can no longer be held down by the Sun’s huge gravitational pull. Just like a coiled spring suddenly being released, they erupt into space.”

She adds: “It looks like the first eruption was so large that it changed the magnetic fields throughout half the Sun’s visible atmosphere and provided the right conditions for the second eruption. Both eruptions could be Earth-directed but may be traveling at different speeds.”

“This means we have a very good chance of seeing major and prolonged effects, such as the northern lights at low latitudes.”


Satellite Threat

Despite being separated by hundreds of thousands of kilometers, the two events may be linked. Images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory hint at a shock wave traveling from the flare into the filament. “These are two distinct phenomena but they are obviously related,” says Len Culhane, a solar physicist at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London.

Filaments are gigantic tubes of magnetism that fill up with solar gas and hang in the atmosphere of the sun. This particular one spanned 50 times the diameter of our planet before it burst. It then spilled its contents into space, producing a cloud of electrically charged particles known as a coronal mass ejection.

When the cloud hits our planet, as will happen any day now, satellites could be affected.

A gust of solar particles in April may have been responsible for putting Intelsat’s Galaxy 15 permanently out of action.

In the grand scheme of solar things, this is not a big eruption. The sun is currently rousing from an unusually extended period of quiet.

“If the solar activity continues to rise, then in three to four years this will be seen as a comparatively normal event,” says Culhane.

From August 28, 1859 until September 2, 1859 numerous sunspots and solar flares were observed on the sun, according to Wikipedia.

Just before noon on September 1, the British astronomer Richard Carrington observed the largest flare, which caused a massive coronal mass ejection (CME), to travel directly toward Earth, taking 18 hours. This is remarkable because such a journey normally takes three to four days. It moved so quickly because an earlier CME had cleared its way.

Today, NOAA forecasters estimate a 10% chance of major geomagnetic storms and a 45% chance of at least some geomagnetic activity when the clouds arrive on August 3rd and 4th.

h/t: espenhaug.com

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