Space Storm Tracked from Sun to Earth for First Time

For the first time, a spacecraft far from Earth has turned and watched a solar storm engulf our planet. The movie, released today during a NASA press conference, has galvanized solar physicists, who say it could lead to important advances in space weather forecasting.

http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/580702main_STEREOCME.jpg

NASA’s STEREO spacecraft and new data processing techniques have succeeded in tracking space weather events from their origin in the sun’s corona to impact with the Earth, resolving a 40-year mystery about the structure of the structures that cause space weather: how the structures that impact the Earth relate to the corresponding structures in the solar corona. Credit: NASA/STEREO/Scott Wiessinger

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“The movie sent chills down my spine,” says Craig DeForest of the Southwest Research[] Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “It shows a CME swelling into an enormous wall of plasma and then washing over the tiny blue speck of Earth where we live. I felt very small.”

CMEs are billion-ton clouds of solar plasma launched by the same explosions that spark solar flares. When they sweep past our planet, they can cause auroras, radiation storms, and in extreme cases power outages. Tracking these clouds and predicting their arrival is an important part of space weather forecasting.

“We have seen CMEs before, but never quite like this,” says Lika Guhathakurta, program scientist for the STEREO mission at NASA headquarters. “STEREO-A has given us a new view of solar storms.”

These four panels illustrate the path taken by the CME as witnessed by STEREO: in the corona; in the inner heliosphere; near Earth; impacting Wind spacecraft. › View larger

STEREO-A tracks a coronal mass election from the sun to Earth. Credit: SwRI

When CMEs first leave the sun, they are bright and easy to see. Visibility is quickly reduced, however, as the clouds expand into the void. By the time a typical CME crosses the orbit of Venus, it is a billion times fainter than the surface of the full Moon, and more than a thousand times fainter than the Milky Way. CMEs that reach Earth are almost as gossamer as vacuum itself and correspondingly transparent.

“Pulling these faint clouds out of the confusion of starlight and interplanetary dust has been an enormous challenge,” says DeForest.

Indeed, it took almost three years for his team to learn how to do it. Footage of the storm released today was recorded back in December 2008, and they have been working on it ever since. Now that the technique has been perfected, it can be applied on a regular basis without such a long delay.

Alysha Reinard of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center explains the benefits for space weather forecasting:

“Until quite recently, spacecraft could see CMEs only when they were still quite close to the sun. By calculating a CME’s speed during this brief period, we were able to estimate when it would reach Earth. After the first few hours, however, the CME would leave this field of view and after that we were ‘in the dark’ about its progress.”

“The ability to track a cloud continuously from the Sun to Earth is a big improvement,” she continues. “In the past, our very best predictions of CME arrival times had uncertainties of plus or minus 4 hours,” she continues. “The kind of movies we’ve seen today could significantly reduce the error bars.”

The movies pinpoint not only the arrival time of the CME, but also its mass. From the brightness of the cloud, researchers can calculate the gas density with impressive precision. Their results for the Dec. 2008 event agreed with actual in situ measurements at the few percent level. When this technique is applied to future storms, forecasters will be able to estimate its impact with greater confidence.

At the press conference, DeForest pointed out some of the movie’s highlights: When the CME first left the sun, it was cavernous, with walls of magnetism encircling a cloud of low-density gas. As the CME crossed the Sun-Earth divide, however, its shape changed. The CME “snow-plowed” through the solar wind, scooping up material to form a towering wall of plasma. By the time the CME reached Earth, its forward wall was sagging inward under the weight of accumulated gas.

The kind of magnetic transformations revealed by the movie deeply impressed Guhathakurta: “I have always thought that in heliophysics understanding the magnetic field is equivalent to the ‘dark energy’ problem of astrophysics. Often, we cannot see the magnetic field, yet it orchestrates almost everything. These images from STEREO give us a real sense of what the underlying magnetic field is doing.”

All of the speakers at today’s press event stressed that the images go beyond the understanding of a single event. The inner physics of CMEs have been laid bare for the first time — a development that will profoundly shape theoretical models and computer-generated forecasts of CMEs for many years to come.

“This is what the STEREO mission was launched to do,” concludes Guhathakurta, “and it is terrific to see it live up to that promise.”

Related Links:

› STEREO mission site

› Heliophysics web site

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22 thoughts on “Space Storm Tracked from Sun to Earth for First Time

  1. This is just fantastic. Such size and power, and we are really “just a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”.
    Makes all of the BS going on seem very inconsequential doesn’t it?

  2. The hand of the government in my wallet is indeed inconsequential, regardless, since I cannot remove the hand of the government, I would rather my tax dollars be invested toward solving actual problems rather than wasted on non-problems like AGW…

  3. We’ve been keeping close track of sunspots for 400 years. We’ve known about their dangerous effects on earth since we started using electricity 150 years ago.
    And now we can take only 3 years to produce a semi-fictional animation of an actual sunspot!
    Wowie zowie! Gives me a chill to imagine how fast we’re sliding backwards into extravagantly expensive idiocy.

  4. That color looks like teh air in China from all the coal burning. So do they cause global warming or global climate disruption or anything like that? Whatever, I’m sure it’s worse than we thought.

  5. Wow!
    Craig DeForest? – Is he, do we know, a descendant of Lee DeForest, still in the family plasma business?

  6. “CMEs are billion-ton clouds of solar plasma”
    Plasma in cosmos? I thought that was a taboo.

  7. polistra–I know you were being sarcastic, but it’s not an animation of a sunspot. It’s the bubble of gas thrown out into space from an active region (which is just associated with sunspots). As the article explains, this is very difficult to do because of how the gas fades from view as it approaches Earth, while animating a mere sunspot is simple. This is important work, because these Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are dangerous for Earth-orbiting satellites, and the operators often need to shut them down when one approaches, to avoid damage. So they need enough warning and accurate timing for when the CME will arrive. For instance, I’m an astronomer and use the Hubble Space Telescope. When the Sun is at solar maximum and an active region is pointing at the Earth, they might have to put the Hubble into safe mode several times in a few days. But when you do this, you’ve interrupted the astronomy work it’s supposed to be doing, and you might even mess up one of the very long exposures that are often done. So you don’t want to do this if you don’t have to.
    This work will lead to more precise CME arrival predictions that will let the operators judge when they need to safe their satellites and when they can leave them running. It’s not idiocy.

  8. Any chance you could post the video in a viewable format? Like Youtube or the like? My computer won’t play their format.
    GPlant

  9. John Silver says:
    August 19, 2011 at 4:58 am
    “CMEs are billion-ton clouds of solar plasma”
    Plasma in cosmos? I thought that was a taboo.

    Lots of plasma in cosmos. What is wrong is that there are large scale electric fields and currents criss-crossing the universe. Because plasmas are so good conductors any such charge imbalances are immediately shorted out. In short: plasmas are electrically neutral, having the same number of positive and negative charges.

  10. GPlant says:
    August 19, 2011 at 6:12 am
    Any chance you could post the video in a viewable format? Like Youtube or the like? My computer won’t play their format.
    ===========================================
    Get the VLC media player at http://www.videolan.org/.
    VLC is a free and open source cross-platform multimedia player and framework that plays most multimedia files as well as DVD, Audio CD, VCD, and various streaming protocols

  11. Steve C says:
    August 19, 2011 at 3:31 am
    Craig DeForest? – Is he, do we know, a descendant of Lee DeForest, still in the family plasma business?

    According to a Danish friend of mine (not you, Leif, the other one), the answer is yes.

  12. That should be “Southwest RESEARCH Institute” with their Planetary Science Directorate in Boulder Colorado. Southwest Research Institute’s (SwRI) main offices are in San Antonio Texas.

  13. When the really big one comes, move to the center of the floor, sit down, place your head between your knees and kiss your butt goodbye.

  14. “Within decades, solar storms are likely to become more disruptive to planes and spacecraft, say researchers at Reading University”
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14580995
    “The team says the Sun is currently at a grand solar maximum.
    This phase began in the 1920s – and has lasted throughout the space age.
    Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics at Reading, said: “All the evidence suggests that the Sun will shortly exit from a grand solar maximum that has persisted since before the start of the space age”

  15. “From the brightness of the cloud, researchers can calculate the gas density with impressive precision. Their results for the Dec. 2008 event agreed with actual in situ measurements at the few percent level. When this technique is applied to future storms, forecasters will be able to estimate its impact with greater confidence.”
    Thanks to climate science practices, I have doubts.
    Did they make the calculations first and then see that it was within a few percent, or did they tweak their calculations until it was within a few percent? The former means true confidence, the latter means they should probably brace themselves for disappointment.

  16. Space Storm Tracked from Sun to Earth for First Time
    ..The kind of magnetic transformations revealed by the movie deeply impressed Guhathakurta: “I have always thought that in heliophysics understanding the magnetic field is equivalent to the ‘dark energy’ problem of astrophysics. Often, we cannot see the magnetic field, yet it orchestrates almost everything. These images from STEREO give us a real sense of what the underlying magnetic field is doing.”..
    ~
    More connect the dots or reconnect the magnetic fields, if you like it that way instead.
    Vuks..just a note those antiprotons found confirmed recently by PAMELA were found in the South Atlantic Anomaly SAA.
    Your keeping watch on that, yes?
    The discovery of geomagnetically trapped cosmic ray antiprotons
    ..PAMELA data show that the magnetospheric antiproton flux in the SAA exceeds the cosmic-ray antiproton flux by three orders of magnitude at the present solar minimum, and exceeds the sub-cutoff antiproton flux outside radiation belts by four orders of magnitude, constituting the most abundant source of antiprotons near the Earth. ..
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1107.4882
    ~
    GPlant says:
    August 19, 2011 at 6:12 am
    Any chance you could post the video in a viewable format? Like Youtube or the like? My computer won’t play their format.
    ~
    The only player I have on this machine running Windows 7 is the built in Windows Media Player. The video opened correctly here..

  17. “STEREO-A tracks a coronal mass election from the sun to Earth. Credit: SwRI”
    The auto-spell-checker strikes again.

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