Solar storm tracked all the way from the Sun to Earth

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Aug. 20 2011 7:00 AM

Solar storm tracked all the way from the Sun to Earth

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!

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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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!



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