WASHINGTON (AP) – The sun is bombarding Earth with radiation from the
biggest solar storm in more than six years with more to come from the
he solar flare occurred at about 11 p.m. EST Sunday and will hit Earth
with three different effects at three different times. The biggest
issue is radiation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado.
The radiation is mostly a concern for satellite disruptions and
astronauts in space. It can cause communication problems for
polar-traveling airplanes, said space weather center physicist Doug
Radiation from Sunday’s flare arrived at Earth an hour later and will
likely continue through Wednesday. Levels are considered strong but
other storms have been more severe. There are two higher levels of
radiation on NOAA’s storm scale — severe and extreme — Biesecker said.
Still, this storm is the strongest for radiation since May 2005.
The radiation — in the form of protons — came flying out of the sun at
93 million miles per hour.
“The whole volume of space between here and Jupiter is just filled
with protons and you just don’t get rid of them like that,” Biesecker
said. That’s why the effects will stick around for a couple days.
NASA’s flight surgeons and solar experts examined the solar flare’s
expected effects and decided that the six astronauts on the
International Space Station do not have to do anything to protect
themselves from the radiation, spokesman Rob Navias said.
A solar eruption is followed by a one-two-three punch, said Antti
Pulkkinen, a physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in
Maryland and Catholic University.
First comes electromagnetic radiation, followed by radiation in the
form of protons.
Then, finally the coronal mass ejection — that’s the plasma from the
sun itself — hits. Usually that travels at about 1 or 2 million miles
per hour, but this storm is particularly speedy and is shooting out at
4 million miles per hour, Biesecker said.
It’s the plasma that causes much of the noticeable problems on Earth,
such as electrical grid outages. In 1989, a solar storm caused a
massive blackout in Quebec. It can also pull the northern lights
But this coronal mass ejection seems likely to be only moderate, with
a chance for becoming strong, Biesecker said. The worst of the storm
is likely to go north of Earth.
And unlike last October, when a freak solar storm caused auroras to be
seen as far south as Alabama, the northern lights aren’t likely to dip
too far south this time, Biesecker said. Parts of New England, upstate
New York, northern Michigan, Montana and the Pacific Northwest could
see an aurora but not until Tuesday evening, he said.
For the past several years the sun had been quiet, almost too quiet.
Part of that was the normal calm part of the sun’s 11-year cycle of
activity. Last year, scientists started to speculate that the sun was
going into an unusually quiet cycle that seems to happen maybe once a
century or so.
Now that super-quiet cycle doesn’t seem as likely, Biesecker said.
Scientists watching the sun with a new NASA satellite launched in 2010
— during the sun’s quiet period — are excited.
“We haven’t had anything like this for a number of years,” Pulkkinen
said. “It’s kind of special.”
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory: http://sdo.gsfc.nasa.gov/