Solar flares & more- an introduction to space weather

A Moment of Science

Very few things in life are as predictable as sunsets. No matter what the day brings- you can always count on it to end. Likewise, you can always count on the sun to be there in our sky.

To us it’s bright, never changing. But 93 million miles away, “it’s actually so much more dynamic. It’s seething,” says Alex Young, Dr. Alex Young, the Associate Director for Science in the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“It’s constantly changing, there’s huge amounts of energy moving out, creating these huge blasts of energy called solar flares. And it can also burp these huge blobs of billions of tons of solar material and magnetic fields. We call these coronal mass ejections (CMEs).”

Heliophysists, or sun scientists, like Young monitor these solar flares and coronal mass ejections through the eyes of numerous spacecraft, watching in various filters which paint the sun in a myriad of colors- searching for any significant expulsions of electromagnetic radiation that could cause trouble here on Earth.

These solar storms have caused widespread power outages, communication blackouts, “and in the worst cases we can even lose a satellite. And it’s happened in a few extreme cases” 

But no matter how intense these blasts from the sun are- they don’t pose a health threat to us. 

“The good news is that we’re protected here on Earth, the atmosphere is very thick,” says Young. “So a lot of the things like x rays and gamma rays, the things that would be really bad for us, don’t make it through the atmosphere.”

A coronal mass ejection captured by NASA’s STEREO spacecraft.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case everywhere.

Astronauts heading to the moon, mars, and beyond travel don’t have this protection we have on the Earth’s surface and could be hit with a lethal dose of radiation traveling at the speed of light. Thankfully for future space travel, and our current technologically connected world, scientists with the Space Weather Prediction Center continuously watch for solar storm activity, just like how their counterparts within NOAA watch tropical storms! 

I’m just scratching the surface of this incredibly complicated but fascinating branch of science that often results in more questions than you started off with, “but that’s really the exciting part of science in general. It’s not just answering questions, it’s getting new questions which takes us another step forward.”

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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