Solar storm tracked all the way from the Sun to Earth

By Phil Plait | August 20, 2011 7:00 am

Yesterday I wrote about scientists being able to see sunspots as they form deep inside the Sun, well before they rise to the surface.

Around the same time, more news about the Sun was released as well. And I was ready to write up a fancy schmancy post talking all about it, I really was. It would be about how my old friend Craig DeForest used data from NASA’s Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (aka STEREO) to track a coronal mass ejection (CME) — a huge blast of subatomic particles chock full o’ magnetic energy — all the way from the solar surface to the Earth… but then those folks at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center put together this terrific video explaining it really well, saving me the effort!

Very very cool. Here is a still from the actual animation of the blast:

[Click to embiggen.]

In this graphic, the Sun is on the right and the Earth on the left. The horizontal scale is logarithmic, which means it’s highly compressed; as you get farther away from the Sun (that is, looking more to the left) the step size gets bigger. That allows a lot of space to be shown in a relatively small graphic. The green arrow shows the location of the CME, still well before it hit the Earth (if you click to get the complete image, you’ll see several frames as the CME headed our way; the planet to the right of Earth is a representation of Venus).

It’s hard to overstate just how faint this thing is; it took a huge amount of detailed processing to tease out the weak signal from the much brighter background of stars, the Milky Way, and other sources. Now let me phrase this next bit carefully. I know a lot of scientists, and many of them are the best of the best. Geniuses. I’ve known Craig for a while now (we used to work down the hall from each other at Goddard), and so when I tell you he is among the smartest people I have ever met, then hopefully you will understand the full import of this.

So this work is fantastic. Not only is it really beautiful and simply cool, it is also very important. A big CME carries a heckuva whallop with it, and can damage or destroy satellites and cause blackouts here on Earth. Nailing down their arrival times is extremely important, and has always been difficult. Craig’s process using STEREO data can potentially reduce that uncertainty, and in the process save a lot of cash and grief. In this game, minutes count.

As the Sun ramps up its activity toward the peak in 2013 and 2014, this technique, and STEREO itself, will come in handy, I’d wager. But then, that’s why we do this stuff!


Related posts:

STEREO sees an ethereal solar blast
One piece of solar flare
STEREO scoping
The whole Sun catalog

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science, Top Post

Comments (16)

  1. Dr. Tongue’s 3-D House of Coronal Mass Ejections.

    Woooooooooo!

  2. i think it not so well define graphic or i am not understood it

  3. Tom

    Now, turn this into electricity. Go!

  4. When I watch the video it actually looks like the sun is shooting at us. Not trying to kill us. More like it just wants attention by shooting at us with a rubber band gun.

    Yeah.. my mind works in mysterious ways. :)

  5. Wzrd1

    Tom, never fear. CME impacts DO generate electricity. Enough to burn out power lines, telephone lines, transformers, power generators, etc.
    The problem is, it’s intense spikes of energy, which cause massive problems.
    Fortunately, they’re not very common, in Earth directed CME’s and large ones even more infrequent.
    BUT, we’re approaching a solar maximum, where we COULD get one to strike the Earth’s magnetosphere, which would wreak havoc on our technology.
    With early warning, satellites can be put into standby mode, reducing damage. But, on Earth, there have been very serious discussions about disconnecting the power grid, should a very intense CME come toward Earth. Just to prevent the loss of those aforementioned generators and power transformers.

  6. ChazInMT

    So this will see the December 2012 end of the Earth events too???

  7. Brian

    Yep! Thanks to this technology, we’ll get a couple of hours of warning to prepare before the earth opens up and the ocean engulfs everyone! How cool is that?!one!

  8. Doug

    What are the chances that the STEREO satellites themselves would fall victim to CMEs?

  9. Richie

    That is pretty darned neat.

    I did not know that CME’s expand to 10 million times their original size. as they go through the solar system.

  10. Joe

    “Embiggen” sent me scurrying to the dictionary. I had never seen the word. It turns out that “Embiggen” is a made-up word intended to sound like a real word and was popularized in a 1996 episode of “The Simpsons.” It also appears that physicists are particularly fond on the (non) word. That makes ME feel smart! The clue was when I “clicked on the image to embiggen”, and it didn’t. Maybe the column should be called “Good Astronomy and Bad English.”

  11. Wzrd1

    Doug, the STEREO satellites are hardened a bit more than normal satellites are AND automatically shut down after a certain threshold has been reached in radiation flux.
    That said, THEY could get cooked too, if a super massive CME were to hit. But, it’d have to be a TRUE record breaker.
    Worse than ones that could generate geoelectric currents that would be rather bad for our technology.

    Richie, yep! The magnetic component obeys the inverse square law (Google it for the math, which is only mildly annoying). Gas will expand naturally in a vacuum, I can’t recall the particular math on that one, but again predictable. BOTH TOGETHER require field intensity, ionization levels, gas composition, etc to predict, but it’s pretty much hydrogen from the sun, hence fairly predictable.

    Now, want a migraine? Look up the Earth’s FULL magnetic field, from core on out.
    Then, consider that the sun’s magnetic field makes ours look like a cheap toy in complexity.

  12. JB of Brisbane

    @Joe #11 and anyone else preparing to comment – what is it with the spate of “Keep It To Words In The OED” comments of late? I personally look forward to Phil’s latest fabricated synonym of “enlarge”, and I consider myself a spelling, grammar and punctuation Nazi. Lighten up, people.

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ JB of Brisbane : Yep, seconded. It’s one of the BA’s idiosyncracies. He’s not going to stop doing it – so folks may as well get used to it – and I wouldn’t want him to. :-)

    So this work is fantastic. Not only is it really beautiful and simply cool, it is also very important. A big CME carries a heckuva whallop with it, and can damage or destroy satellites and cause blackouts here on Earth.

    Absolutely. I recall reading a chapter on solar flares potentially bringing death or at least severe disruption from the skies in a great book by a certain, oh what was his name again, Dr P-something? ;-)

    Good videoclip there from NASA-Goddard too. :-)

    Although there’s just one small nit I’ve got to pick with it – what’s with the Ulysses (Jupiter) ref at the diagram /graphic around the 2 minute 20 seconds mark? I could be mistaken but wasn’t Ulysses more a solar probe -zipping over our daytime star’s poles than a Jupiter one (although it did use the largest planet for gravitational slingshot purposes) and hasn’t it been defunct for a couple of years now?

    I was actually wondering after the earlier SDO images of the recent solar flares & CME’s whether we’d be seeing something from STEREO on that too. So glad to see this turn up and answer that.

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    See :

    I could be mistaken but wasn’t Ulysses more a solar probe – zipping over our daytime star’s poles and hasn’t it been defunct for a couple of years now?

    Yep.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2009/06/29/after-an-18-year-mission-the-solar-probe-ulysses-retires/

    &

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/02/26/ulyssess-odyssey-comes-to-an-end/

    &

    http://ulysses.jpl.nasa.gov/

    for instance.

    Ulysses was an epic and very successful if rather ungeralded and little known mission.

  15. Bob H

    Great Post.

    Loved the Firefly reference. Very suttle.

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