Solar storms start their lives as violent explosions from the sun’s surface. They’re made up of energetic charged particles wrapped in a complex magnetic cloud. As they erupt from the sun’s surface, they can shoot out into interplanetary space at speeds of up to 3,000 kilometers per second (that’s 6.7 million miles per hour). Depending on their direction of travel, these energetic storms can journey past Earth and other planets.
If a solar storm makes it to Earth, it can disrupt a variety of modern technologies including GPS and high-frequency communications, and even power grids on the ground, causing radio blackouts and citywide loss of power. It can also wreak havoc within the aviation industry by disrupting communication methods.
To combat related potential economic losses, affected industries have been seeking a solution that can provide them with at least 24 hours of warning. With enough lead time, they can safely change their operational procedures. For example, passenger planes can be rerouted or power grid transformers can begin the slow process of “winding down,” all of which require at least a day’s notice – a huge jump beyond the 60-minute advance warning currently common. By building on earlier research, my colleagues and I have come up with a technique we think can meet that 24-hour warning goal.
Mark Anderson has an M.S. in astrophysics, is a contributor to Discover, and has written about science and history for many other publications. His new book The Day the World Discovered the Sun: An Extraordinary Story of Scientific Adventure and the Race to Track the Transit of Venus has just been published by Da Capo.
Also see Paul Raeburns’s explanation of what investigating Venus can teach us about our own planet.
The 2004 Venus transit at sunrise
On Tuesday afternoon—for those in North, Central and parts of South America—the planet Venus will pass directly in front of the sun for seven hours. This rare spectacle, called the Venus transit, occurs twice within a decade, then not again for more than a century. But as fleeting as they are, transits of the past provided invaluable information about our place in the solar system—and, astronomers hope, this transit could help us glean more information on planets elsewhere in the galaxy.
In the 1760s, some of the age’s top explorers and scientists collaborated on dozens of expeditions across the planet to observe the Venus transit. These voyages launched the legendary careers of Captain Cook and the surveyors Mason and Dixon. The expeditions also represented the world’s first big science project—forefather to today’s Large Hadron Collider and Human Genome Project, in which an international community of hundreds or thousands collaborates on a single fundamental scientific problem at the frontier of human knowledge.
In the balance hung two of the greatest scientific and technological puzzles of the 18th century: discovering the Sun’s distance from the Earth and finding one’s longitude at sea. Read More