Why we need to worry about space weather

February 12, 2015

Everyone complains about the weather, but NASA is doing something about it.

A Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite launched last night aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will monitor solar wind, solar flares and coronal mass ejections, all of which fit within the definition of “space weather.” The concept sounds like, well, science fiction, but a washingtonpost.com article titled “When space weather attacks” describes the magnitude of the threat constituted by space weather:

Today, electric utilities and the insurance industry are grappling with a scary possibility. A solar storm on the scale of that in 1859 would wreak havoc on power grids, pipelines and satellites. In the worst case, it could leave 20 million to 40 million people in the Northeast without power — possibly for years — as utilities struggled to replace thousands of fried transformers stretching from Washington to Boston.

As this Reuters graphic shows, potential solar flares are formed when the sun’s magnetic field lines become twisted “Corona loops” due to the speed of the sun’s rotation. When these loops become large enough, they tear away from the sun’s surface in a “coronal mass ejection,” the effects of which can be detected downstream, here on Earth.

The just-launched satellite, named DSCOVR, will travel 932,000 miles toward the Sun, to a place  in space called Lagrange 1, where the gravity between the Earth and the sun are perfectly balanced, allowing for the satellite to orbit the sun. From there, DSCOVR will monitor solar weather and convey information back to us Earthlings, lest airplanes fall from the sky or your microwave leave some popcorn kernels unpopped.

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