By The Raleigh Telegram
RALEIGH – Scientists at NASA and NOAA say that this year, activity on the surface of the sun is the strongest in six years, with more radiation reaching the earth than usual. The sun’s activity fluctuates in cycles and 2012 will see more than an average amount of solar storm activity as the sun reaches its so-called “solar maximum” with more sunspots appearing across its surface.
The sun goes from maximum to a minimum and then back again to a maximum over an 11 year cycle.
This year marks the peak of solar activity since 2005, the last solar maximum. Already in January, a series of solar flares caused some airlines to reroute their flights to keep communications from being affected. During periods of strong solar activity, flights over the poles of the earth are particularly vulnerable to communications blackouts from solar flareups.
Although the solar flares and other solar activity do not pose a serious threat to humans on the ground, they do have the ability to disrupt electrical power, communications, and other electric-powered devices. They can also potentially pose a threat to astronauts, satellites, and spacecraft in orbit.
In late January of this year, NASA scientists monitored a Mars probe en route to the red planet as a fast moving solar coronal mass ejection swept through the solar system. A coronal mass ejection is material that is expelled from the sun at high speeds.
Onboard the Mars Curiosity Rover spacecraft, scientists included a Radiation Assessment Detector or “RAD” for short. NASA says the instrument is designed to “count cosmic rays, neutrons, protons and other particles over a wide range of energies.” As the spacecraft heads toward Mars, it has been monitoring these coronal mass ejections and other solar activity. Although the Curiosity spacecraft was undamaged by any coronal mass ejection, the RAD device will help gauge the danger of solar radiation to future humans headed to Mars.
For many satellites and objects around the earth, the danger from the sun’s X-ray flare ups and other radiation emissions is very real. Not long ago, a NASA satellite was actually damaged by a solar flare.
“A modern solar flare [was] recorded on December 5, 2006, by the X-ray Imager onboard NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite,” says NASA on one of its educational websites. “The flare was so intense, it actually damaged the instrument that took the picture.”
As the earth becomes more dependent on electrical power grids and electrical devices in general, the chances that solar activity could cause massive disruptions in every day life is increasing. Although it sounds more like a scene from a fanciful science fiction movie, such strong solar events have caused almost unbelievable problems here on Earth in the past.
In 1859, a solar event actually caused telegraph communications to fail and some telegraph equipment even caught on fire as a result. The Carrington Event, named after an astronomer who observed part of the sun’s flareups through a telescope, caused auroras so bright that people on the east coast of the United States could read newspapers at night time.
NASA also says more recent events have occurred.
A huge solar flare knocked out phone communications across part of Illinois on August 4, 1972, prompting phone companies to change the design of their long distance cables across the Atlantic, says a NASA science report. The space storm of March 13, 1989 melted some electrical transformers in New Jersey and knocked out power in Quebec for nine hours.
More recently, NASA says that GPS communications were knocked out briefly by solar activity.
“In December 2005, X-rays from another solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes,” says a NASA science report on solar flares.
Although it is evident that super solar flare events are extremely rare, solar activity is ongoing is virtually guaranteed at some point to cause further disruptions here on earth, what’s unclear is how civilization will deal with the results if power grid failures occur.
“Experts who have studied the question say there is little to be done to protect satellites from a Carrington-class flare,” says the Science@NASA Science. “In fact, a recent paper estimates potential damage to the 900-plus satellites currently in orbit could cost between $30 billion and $70 billion.”
However, with attention on solar weather increasing, it’s hoped that advance warnings and more awareness and preparation on the part of utilities and communications providers will help reduce the impact that the sun’s storms may have on every day life in our modern world. ::