Solar Storms Building Toward Peak in 2013, NASA Predicts

by Clara Moskowitz, SPACE.com Assistant Managing Editor
Date: 09 August 2011 Time: 05:06 PM ET

This image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the X6.9 solar flare of Aug. 9, 2011 near the western limb (right edge) of the sun. CREDIT: NASA/SDO/Weather.com

Solar flares like the huge one that erupted on the sun early today (Aug. 9) will only become more common as our sun nears its maximum level of activity in 2013, scientists say.

Tuesday’s flare was the most powerful sun storm since 2006, and was rated an X6.9 on the three-class scale for solar storms (X-Class is strongest, with M-Class in the middle and C-Class being the weakest).

Flares such as this one could become the norm soon, though, as our sun’s 11-year cycle of magnetic activity ramps up, scientists explained. The sun is just coming out of a lull, and scientists expect the next peak of activity in 2013. The current cycle, called Solar Cycle 24, began in 2008.

“We still are on the upswing with this recent burst of activity,” said Phil Chamberlin, a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who is a deputy project scientist for the agency’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a sun-studying satellite that launched in February 2010. “We could definitely in the next year or two see more events like this; there’s a potential to see larger events as well.”

A more active sun

Earth got lucky with the most recent flare, which wasn’t pointed directly at Earth; therefore, it didn’t send the brunt of its charged particles toward us, but out into space. However, we may not be so fortunate in the future, experts warned.

“We’re in the new cycle, it is building and we’ll see events like this one,” said Joe Kunches, a space scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “They’ll be much more commonplace and we’ll get more used to them.”

Spacecraft such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which recorded amazing videos of the Aug. 9 solar flare, and other observatories will be vital in monitoring the sun during its active phase, researchers said.

How sun storms form

Storms brew on the sun when pent-up energy from tangled magnetic field lines is released in the form of light, heat and charged particles. This can create a brightening on the sun called a flare, and is also often accompanied by the release of a cloud of plasma called a coronal mass ejection (CME).

These ejections are the part we Earthlings have to worry about.

As the CME careens through space, it can send a horde of charged particles toward our planet that can damage satellites, endanger astronauts in orbit, and interfere with power systems, communications and other infrastructure on the ground.

“We’re well aware of the difficulties and challenges,” Kunches told SPACE.com. “We know more about the sun than we ever have.”

Can we predict solar storms?

When a big storm occurs, the Space Weather Prediction Center releases a warning to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, emergency managers and agencies responsible for protecting power grids. Then power grids can distribute power and reduce their loads to protect themselves.

Satellite and power companies are also trying to design technology that can better withstand the higher radiation loads unleashed by solar storms.

Still, scientists would like to offer more advanced warnings when big storms are headed our way.

“We’re being reactive, we’re not being proactive,” Chamberlin said. “We don’t know how to predict these things, which would be nice.”

Chamberlin said solar science has come a long way in recent years, though, and the goal of SDO and other NASA projects is to improve our understanding of the sun and our ability to forecast space weather.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Solar Storms Building Toward Peak in 2013, NASA Predicts | Solar Flares & Storms | Space & Solar Weather | Space.com.

Asymmetrical Shape of Heliosphere Raises Questions

By Walter Cruttenden, July 7, 2008

Ever since the Voyager 2 data confirmed the nonsymmetrical shape of the solar system scientists have pondered its cause (i). In summary, the edge of the heliosphere (the place where the solar wind slows to sub sonic speeds) appears to be 1.2 billion kilometers shorter on the south side of the solar system (and in the general direction of the winter solstice, the direction of Voyager 2), than it is on the edge of the planetary plane (where Voyager 1 exited approximately a year earlier). This indicates the heliosphere is not a sphere at all but a bullet shape. More data is required to determine the exact shape in all directions.

The initial explanation was there must be some sort of gas cloud pressing against one side of our solar system. While this hypothesis is plausible there is another possibility that deserves consideration; stellar wind.

The sun’s solar winds are primarily driven by its magnetic field. When magnetic storms arise on the sun it produces coronal mass ejections (CME’s), which are like waves or ripples on the solar wind. The solar wind is constantly pushing on the daylight side of the earth’s magnetosphere squashing it in a pattern similar to the way the sun’s magnetic field seems to be squashed where Voyager 2 exited the solar system. Thus it is possible that the dented solar system might be due to the same type of cause; stellar winds from a not too distant star.

Some indication of this might reside in the data recently received by NASA’s sun-focused STEREO spacecraft. The twin STEREO spacecraft were launched in 2006 into earth’s orbit about the sun to obtain stereo pictures of the sun’s surface and to measure magnetic fields and ion fluxes associated with solar explosions. Between June and October 2007, the STEREO spacecraft detected atoms “originating from the same spot in the sky: the shock front and the heliosheath beyond, where the sun plunges through the interstellar medium”, and found “energetic neutral particles from beyond the heliosphere” that are moving toward the sun (ii). While this might be due to other causes such as “charge exchange between hot ions and neutral atoms” as hypothesized by scientists at UC Berkeley, it may also indicate the source of the asymmetrical solar system is due to the stellar wind from another star rather than an interstellar gas cloud. More data is needed and should be forthcoming with the pending launch of the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), due to begin receiving data some time in the next year.

(i) Science Daily, Voyager 2 Proves Solar System is Squashed, December 13, 2007
(ii) E Science News, First Images of Solar System’s Invisible Frontier, July 2, 2008

Binary Research Institute.

Earth Passing Into Cosmic Energy Cloud

Lawrence E. Joseph
Author, “AFTERMATH: A Guide to Preparing for and Surviving Apocalypse 2012”
Posted: 12/29/09 09:21 AM ET

On Christmas Eve, 2009, the startling hypothesis that our Solar System, the Sun and all its planets, are moving into a potentially dangerous and destabilizing interstellar energy cloud, was resoundingly sustained. In their research paper, “A strong, highly-tilted interstellar magnetic field near the Solar System,” published the December 24, 2009 issue of Nature, a highly respected scientific journal, M. Opher et al report on data transmitted from Voyager, the twin spacecraft that have been exploring the outer reaches of the Solar System since 1977.

“We have discovered a strong magnetic field just outside the solar system. This magnetic field holds the interstellar energy cloud together and solves the long-standing puzzle of how it can exist at all,” says Opher, a NASA Heliophysics Guest Investigator from George Mason University. He explains that this energy cloud is at least twice as strong as had previously been predicted and that the Solar System has begun to pass into it, adding that this field “is turbulent or has a distortion in the solar vicinity.”

In fact, most scientists had either minimized the possible significance of the interstellar energy cloud or dismissed the whole notion of its existence altogether. But not Dr. Alexei Dmitriev, the esteemed Russian space physicist whom I visited in Akademgorodok, a clandestine scientific research city outside of Novosibirsk, Siberia. In my recent book, Apocalypse 2012: An Investigation into Civilization’s End, I detailed Dmitriev’s conclusions, based on his team’s analysis of Voyager data, that the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are inexplicably excited — immense storms, mammoth eruptions, plasma arcs jetting from the planets’ surface to their moons. He reasoned that this turbulence is caused by an external injection of energy into the planets’ atmospheres: to wit, an interstellar energy cloud which the leading edge of the Solar System has now entered.

The Nature article does not examine the earthly ramifications of moving into the energy cloud beyond suggesting that we could face an increase in cosmic rays, which could affect everything from space travel to rainfall. But the prescient Dmitriev, who has been publishing on the subject for the past fifteen years, observes that passage into this interstellar cloud has already begun to perturb the Sun, causing solar outbursts that are leading to hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes of unprecedented ferocity here on Earth. He is on record as predicting that we will face global catastrophe in “not tens but ones of years.” When pressed, Dmitriev guesstimates that the Solar System will remain within this turbulent energy cloud for something on the order of three millennia.

The confirmation of Dmitriev’s interstellar energy cloud hypothesis marks the third time that major predictions made in Apocalypse 2012 have been validated since it was published in 2007. Much of the book concerned the potential impacts of solar turbulence on climatic and seismic events, on the global satellite network and also the electrical power grid. Lo and behold, in December, 2008, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a 100+ page report detailing the grave vulnerability of the electrical power grid to solar blasts, which, by scientific consensus, are next expected to climax in late 2012 or early 2013. The NAS concludes that up to 130 million people could find themselves without electricity for months or years due to solar mega-storms shorting out the grid. Without telecommunications, water or gasoline (the pumps are electric), refrigeration, and basic law enforcement or military security, civilization as we know it would be brought to its knees.

Apocalypse 2012 also reported extensively on evidence that the Earth’s protective magnetic shield is showing signs of realignment and deterioration, a hypothesis emphatically validated in December, 2008, THEMIS, a squadron of five NASA research satellites unexpectedly flew through a giant, pole-to-equator breach in our planet’s magnetic field. The astrophysicists attached to the THEMIS project were utterly astonished by the data, with David Sibeck, the project leader, going so far as to declare that “it was as though the Sun rose in the west.” The shields are down, Scotty, and the Sun is going to begin pummeling us big time in late 2012 or early 2013.

Our space neighborhood is changing, and not for the better. We need to take precautions to defend our home planet, our way of life, starting right now.

Lawrence E. Joseph: Passing Into the Energy Cloud.