Real-time solar flare detection now online

By Phil Plait | February 13, 2008 10:49 am

I am loving this. Scientists and engineers have collaborated on a system which can give real-time information on incoming solar flares, blasts of radiation that can harm astronauts and even incur damage on Earth.

The Sun has a magnetic field which is tied in, connected, with the material making up the Sun’s surface. The magnetic field can shape the material, which in turn can coil up and tangle the loops of magnetism piercing the Sun’s surface. Like tightly compressed springs, the loops of magnetic energy can build up huge amounts of energy, and this energy can be released in an explosion of mind-numbing scale called a solar flare.

The details are complex, but the explosion dwarfs the entire Earth’s nuclear arsenal. If the flare is aimed our way, a wave of high-energy subatomic particles marches across the solar system, slams into our magnetic field here on Earth, and can cause all sorts of havoc. The particles can irradiate astronauts, and can induce electrical currents on the Earth’s surface, disrupting power grids.

Obviously, it would be helpful to know when something like that is headed our way.

It so happens that a flare gives us a warning before the particle blast wave gets here. Electrons in the flare can be accelerated to huge speeds, just a hair under the speed of light, and they arrive on Earth as much as an hour or so before the main bulk of the particle radiation. By detecting these electrons, a warning can be sent out to any astronauts performing an EVA (spacewalk), or, in the future, who happen to out on the lunar surface. An hour may not seem like much, but it’s enough time to get back inside the space station or protective structure if it’s needed.

The electrons are detected by the COSTEP (Comprehensive Suprathermal and Energetic Particle Analyzer) instrument on board SOHO, that venerable bastion of NASA and ESA solar science. It has been capable of detecting these electrons for years, but only in the past few weeks has this turned into a real-time method of alerting people on an incoming flare.

Space weather — the variable nature of the particle and electromagnetic radiation streams from the Sun — is an important business. Multi-million dollar satellites can get fried by solar flares or the even more dangerous Coronal Mass Ejections, not to mention the danger to astronauts’ health (which I mentioned twice, actually). Having a real-time warning will be one of the most useful tools in the kit for space travelers and those who tend to them. This is a fantastic step forward in our exploration of space!

And I have to mention… I wrote an entire chapter about dangers from the Sun in my upcoming book Death from the Skies. I had a lot of help from solar scientists, and it really gave me an appreciation for just how important — and dangerous — solar flares and CMEs are. That no doubt has fueled my enthusiasm for hearing this news!


Comments (16)

  1. For those who missed what “CME” means in your footnote, it’s Coronal Mass Ejections. While BA calls them by name in the main article, he did not mention their acronym.

  2. Redx

    ehh… I know it is rather horribly pedantic, but I don’t think many people are concerned that the blasts of radiation are damaged when the intersect the Earth.

  3. This is great news! It’s going to really help manned space exploration. You can use a lot less radiation shielding on a spaceship if you don’t have to be in the shielding all the time. Less weight, mass ratio savings.

  4. Redx, I’ve looked, but I don’t see where I mismatched modifiers to say that. Can you be specific, please?

  5. Redx

    Incur typically means that the damage is done to the subject. The earth incurs or equipment on the earth incurs damage. The solar flares induce damage.

  6. Jeffersonian

    Can anybody explain what the likely average breakdown is is in the stream of subatomic particles? I’m assuming from the post that it’s mostly electrons but not entirely?

  7. Wow. That’s really cool!

    Hey, look, here comes a burst of radiation now. I’ll just take a — OW! IT BURNS!! YEAAGH!! AAAAAARGH!!

  8. Bryan

    Is there an article or paper I can link to for this? This would be awesome for a research paper I’m doing on the Sun, and how it affects our technology. Thanks.

    Besides that, this is awesome! No we don’t have to worry as much about solar flares and such, which is awesome for space exploration. Woot!!


  9. It’s amazing to think that if this actually happened, all our cell phones, GPS systems, computers, and even the whole internet, could collapse in a heap in an hour or two.

    Would humanity (at least the Western world) actually be able to survive if this happened? We should be more prepared so that if it does happen, we can get things up and running again before things get too disastrous.

    Interesting post. :)

  10. chris H

    a few days ago i saw that episode of Mega Destasters on the History Channel, Solar Storm. It realy is scary to know how we have all our eggs in one basket. by that i meen how we trust onto our electrical systems by a few points of faluire. a big enough CME hit us and those big transformer sub-staions that suply power to most small towns like mine will be toast, here again is another reason why we who are dependant on technology and the energy to run it need to find alternitives, and the sooner the better

    every day of this winter, and every winter that i can remember for that matter, the wind has been persistant and fast. free energy blowing right by us. and a person like my grandfather who has the money and the land for a home use trubine could care less. how can i use CME’s to convince him and others that the threat is to real to ignore, yet while at the same time not using chicken little tactits to get people to change

  11. Potterbro

    Hmm… the applet is somewhat difficult to follow. From the Time scale on the bottom and where the “current time” marker is, it seems like this isn’t just a forecaster but also gives the results for the previous 24 hours as well. But what I find confusing is the difference between the 3 “forecasts”. It seems that their time scales are the same for all 3 but the solar flares seem to arrive at different times. Not only that, but the regions that represent the time after “current time” are the same for all 3 forecasts.

    Can somebody explain how to read these charts and tell me what the difference between them is?

  12. alfaniner

    It would be really freaky to be looking at that online and suddenly see something really big happening, and knowing we only have about an hour to live.

    Ever seen the low-budget, but still intriguing movie Miracle Mile?

  13. This is about terrestrial weather, but your post reminded me of it, and I think applies equally well here.

  14. Ben

    Uh-oh, scientists and engineers collaborating? It can only go downhill from here.

    Reminds me of that old saying

    “A scientist can tell you how a star works but if you wanted to make a new star you’d have to ask an engineer”.

  15. Don’t EVEN get the TU24 people started on the Sun’s magnetic field.

  16. @Potterbroon (13 Feb 2008 at 2:26 pm)

    > Hmm… the applet is somewhat difficult to follow.

    I agree. I did not have the time yet to include an explaining text, but this is work in progress.

    > From the Time scale on the bottom and where
    > the “current time” marker is, it seems like this
    > isn’t just a forecaster but also gives the results
    > for the previous 24 hours as well.

    That’s right, you look at the forecasts for the last 24 hours. This does not make soooo much sense at the moment, but I will include the “real” measured data shortly. This will allow us to compare the forecasting with the measured fluxes during the last 24 hours.

    > But what I find confusing is the difference
    > between the 3 “forecasts”.
    > It seems that their time scales are the same
    > for all 3 but the solar flares seem to arrive at different times.

    This is just a display issue if you want to plot them on a common time scale.

    The model puts out three different forecasts:

    30min in the future
    60min in the future
    90min in the future

    When I get a new data record at 12:30 UTC for example, I plot the 30min forecast flux at 13:00 (30min in the future), the 60min forecast at 13:30, and the 90min forecast at 14:00. Just like a time machine 😉

    > Can somebody explain how to read these charts
    > and tell me what the difference between them is?

    The 60min forecast is considered to be the most accurate.

    If there a further questions, you are welcome.

    Oliver M. Rother phone: +49 (0)431 880 4802; fax: 3968
    Extraterrestrial Physics, IEAP mobile: +49 (0)1520 1822109
    Christian-Albrechts-University ICQ: 176223124
    Leibnizstr. 11/505a
    24118 Kiel, Germany


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