A pair of solar observers known as the STEREO spacecraft have taken the first 3-D pictures of the sun‘s powerful storms, during which billions of tons of charged particles erupt from the sun’s surface. The two spacecraft have taken up two positions about 100 million miles apart: Not unlike human eyes, the satellites’ two points of view allow for combination images that render scenes in three dimensions [National Geographic News].
Solar storms can have serious repercussions here on Earth. They can disrupt GPS signals and power grids, damage satellites, and bombard astronauts with solar radiation, experts said [National Geographic News]. But with the STEREO system, researchers say they can predict when a fierce storm will hit Earth 24 hours in advance (an improvement over previous 12-hour predictions). Says researcher Chris Davies: “That’s ample time to power down a satellite until the worst of the storm has passed; and if you’re an astronaut on the space station, you would have had plenty of time to get into an area that has much better shielding” [BBC News]. While STEREO is a temporary scientific research mission, researchers say it provides an example of how a “space weather” early-warning system would work.
NASA’s two solar observers launched in the fall of 2006. One of those golf-cart-sized, 620-kilogram probes now orbits the sun about 50 million miles ahead of Earth, and the other orbits about 50 million miles behind the planet. Not only do the STEREO craft have a good view of solar flares, they measure the speed and the composition of the solar wind as the material sweeps by [Science News]. Information about the materials’ magnetic properties can help researchers predict how it will interact with Earth’s magnetic field.
In addition to their observations of solar storms, the STEREO craft have found time for an exotic side-project: hunting for the remnants of a hypothetical planet named Theia that may have slammed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, spinning off a chunk that we now know as the moon.
80beats: Spacecraft Will Search for Evidence of a Hypothetical Lost Planet
80beats: Cracks in Earth’s Magnetic Field Let in a Huge Gust of Solar Wind
80beats: Traveling to Mars? You’ll Need This Miniature Magnetic Force-Field
DISCOVER: Space Weather and the havoc it can cause
DISCOVER: Seeing Sun Storms in Stereo
DISCOVER: Twin Probes Watch Sun’s Fury in 3-D