Solar storm causes radio blackout in Africa and Asia

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Last Updated: 7:49 AM, March 9, 2012
Posted: 7:44 AM, March 9, 2012

A solar storm shook the Earth’s magnetic field early Friday, but scientists said they had no reports of any problems with electrical systems.

After reports Thursday of the storm fizzling out, a surge of activity prompted space weather forecasters to issue alerts about changes in the magnetic field.

“We really haven’t had any reports from power system operators yet,” Rob Steenburgh, a space weather forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., said early Friday. “But sometimes they don’t come in until after the storm.”

He said the storm reached a moderate level late Thursday, before going to a strong level early Friday. For most of Thursday, it was rated as minor.

Scientists say such storms don’t pose a threat to people, just technology.

The space weather center’s website says a storm rated as strong could force corrections to voltage systems and trigger false alarms on some protection devices, as well as increase drag on satellites and affect their orientation.

The forecasters weren’t aware of any significant impact to electrical or technological systems, but said there was a two-hour blackout of high frequency radio communications — affecting mainly ham radio operations — stretching from eastern Africa to eastern Australia.

Steenburgh also said that there was another solar flare late Thursday, similar to the one a few days ago that set off the current storm.

“Right now we’re still analyzing when it will arrive” and how strong it could be, he said.

The space weather center had reports of Northern Lights across Canada and dipping into the northern tier of U.S. states, Steenburgh said.

While some experts thought the threat from the solar storm passed by earlier Thursday, the space weather center maintained the storm’s effects could continue through Friday morning.

The current storm, which started with a solar flare Tuesday evening, caused a stir Wednesday because forecasts were for a strong storm with the potential to knock electrical grids offline, mess with GPS and harm satellites. It even forced airlines to reroute a few flights on Thursday.

It was never seen as a threat to people, just technology, and teased skywatchers with the prospect of colorful Northern Lights dipping further south.

But when the storm finally arrived around 6 a.m. EST Thursday, after traveling at 2.7 million mph, it was more a magnetic breeze than a gale. The power stayed on. So did GPS and satellites. And the promise of auroras seemed to be more of a mirage.

Scientists initially figured the storm would be the worst since 2006, but now seems only as bad as ones a few months ago, said Joe Kunches, a scientist at the NOAA center. The strongest storm in recorded history was probably in 1859, he said.

“It’s not a terribly strong event. It’s a very interesting event,” Kunches said.

Forecasters can predict the speed a solar storm travels and its strength, but the north-south orientation is the wild card. This time it was a northern orientation, which is “pretty benign,” Kunches said. Southern would have caused the most damaging technological disruption and biggest auroras.

On Thursday, North American utilities didn’t report any problems, said Kimberly Mielcarek, spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a consortium of electricity grid operators. Her office didn’t respond to a phone call early Friday.

Astronomers say the sun has been relatively quiet for some time. And this storm, forecast to be strong and ending up minor, still may seem fiercer because Earth has been lulled by several years of weak solar activity.

The storm is part of the sun’s normal 11-year cycle, which is supposed to reach a peak next year. Storms as large as the latest one will probably happen several more times as the cycle ramps up to that peak, scientists said.

The region of the sun that erupted can still send more blasts our way, Kunches said. Another set of active sunspots is ready to aim at Earth.

“This is a big sun spot group, particularly nasty,” NASA’s Hathaway said. “Things are really twisted up and mixed up. It keeps flaring.”

Storms like this start with sun spots. First, there’s an initial solar flare of subatomic particles that resembles a filament coming out of the sun. That part usually reaches Earth only minutes after the initial burst, bringing radio and radiation disturbances. Next is the coronal mass ejection, which looks like a growing bubble and takes a couple days to reach Earth.

Solar storms have three ways they can disrupt technology on Earth: with magnetic, radio and radiation emissions. In 1989, a strong solar storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec, causing 6 million people to lose power.

For North America, the good part of a solar storm — the one that creates more noticeable auroras or Northern Lights — was likely to peak Thursday evening. Auroras were likely to dip only as far south as the northern edges of the United States, Kunches said, but a full moon would make them harder to see.

Solar storms can bring additional radiation around the north and south poles — a risk that sometimes forces airlines to reroute flights. On Thursday, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines sent 11 flights to Asia on a more southern route rather than their more common path over the Arctic. Three American Airlines flights flew lower than normal over the northernmost parts of their routes to Japan and China.

Solar storm causes radio blackout in Africa and Asia – NYPOST.com.

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US, Japan, Australia? Mars probe will hit Earth in January

Published: 14 December, 2011, 13:47

Phobos-Grunt in orbit (Photo from ralfvandebergh.startje.be)

The ill-fated Phobos-Grunt probe that got stuck in the orbit after an unsuccessful launch will fall to Earth on January 11, probably affecting four continents, the US Strategic Command shared its latest forecast.

The current orbit of the vehicle suggests that it could collide with the surface on a vast part of the globe, from latitude 51.4°N to latitude 51.4°S. anywhere in Africa, Australia, Japan, North America or southern part of Western Europe, but definitely not on the larger part of the Russian territory.

A more-or-less exact prognosis on the coordinates of the crash can only be made several hours before the collision.

According to the previous forecast, the probe was due to enter atmosphere on January 9.

On Monday Viktor Khartov, the head of the Lavochkin bureau that designed the interplanetary station Phobos-Grunt, officially announced that the probe – worth $161 million – will not be able to reach Mars and is considered lost.

The spaceship, which promised to break Russia’s 20-year-long absence from interplanetary flights, was launched on November 9. It was intended to travel to Mars and land on its moon Phobos, later bringing probes back on Earth.

The rocket booster performed with precision, but the vehicle’s engines refused to start, placing it in an incorrect orbit.

For two weeks scientists were unable to contact the probe, but even after the vehicle responded, all efforts to get it back on track proved to be in vain. Then the connection was lost altogether.

There have been reports that two small objects have detached from the probe, but what exactly happened remains unknown.

Phobos-Grunt was initially delivered on orbit with apogee of 340 km and perigee 207 km. Despite being offline, evolutions of the orbit of the probe have been registered: it started to gain altitude at a pace 0.5 km per day, but on November 21 the process reversed. As of now, the space vehicle has orbit with apogee of 281 km and perigee 201 km.

via US, Japan, Australia? Mars probe will hit Earth in January — RT.

Will Apophis Hit Earth in 2036?

Will Asteroid Apophis Hit Earth in 2036? NASA Rejects Russian Report

By Michelle Bryner, Life’s Little Mysteries Contributor
02 February 2011 7:11 PM ET

If the asteroid Apophis hits Earth in 2036, it could slam into the Pacific Ocean, generating a tsunami that could devastate the west coast of North America (Illustration: Don Davis/NASA)

In 2004, NASA scientists announced that there was a chance that Apophis, an asteroid larger than two football fields, could smash into Earth in 2029. A few additional observations and some number-crunching later, astronomers noted that the chance of the planet-killer hitting Earth in 2029 was nearly zilch.

Now, reports out of Russia say that scientists there estimate Apophis will collide with Earth on April 13, 2036. These reports conflict on the probability of such a doomsday event, but the question remains: How scared should we be?

“Technically, they’re correct, there is a chance in 2036 [that Apophis will hit Earth],” said Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office. However, that chance is just 1-in-250,000, Yeomans said.

The Russian scientists are basing their predictions of a collision on the chance that the 900-foot-long (270 meters) Apophis will travel through what’s called a gravitational keyhole as it passes by Earth in 2029. The gravitational keyhole they mention is a precise region in space, only slightly larger than the asteroid itself, in which the effect of Earth’s gravity is such that it could tweak Apophis’ path.

“The situation is that in 2029, April 13, [Apophis] flies very close to the Earth, within five Earth radii, so that will be quite an event, but we’ve already ruled out the possibility of it hitting at that time,” Yeomans told Life’s Little Mysteries. “On the other hand, if it goes through what we call a keyhole during that close Earth approach … then it will indeed be perturbed just right so that it will come back and smack Earth on April 13, 2036,” Yeomans said.

The chances of the asteroid going through the keyhole, which is tiny compared to the asteroid, are “minuscule,” Yeomans added.

The more likely scenario is this: Apophis will make a fairly close approach to Earth in late 2012 and early 2013, and will be extensively observed with ground-based optical telescopes and radar systems. If it seems to be heading on a destructive path, NASA will devise the scheme and machinery necessary to change the asteroid’s orbit, decreasing the probability of a collision in 2036 to zero, Yeomans said.

There are several ways to change an asteroid’s orbit, the simplest of which is to run a spacecraft into the hurtling rock. This technology was used on July 4, 2005, when Deep Impact smashed into the comet Tempel 1.

via Will Apophis Hit Earth in 2036? | Asteroid & Space Rock Collisions | Life’s Little Mysteries.