CMEs — Supplemental

This appeared in the Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs. I guess every military facility in that county (4 major) monitors CMEs!

Military keeps a wary eye on stormy sun
January 28, 2012 11:40 AM
JAKOB RODGERS
THE GAZETTE

Airplanes avoided the Earth’s poles. Swedes reveled in brilliant vistas of green and red that danced across the northern skies. Residents in Colorado Springs mostly went about their normal lives, except for airmen who watched for trouble in orbit.

A fiery explosion 93 million miles Earth caused all of this.

Forecasters warn that it might be a mild taste of things to come.

The sun awakened from its slumber last week, signaling the start of yet another radiation-hurling, satellite-rattling period of solar storms known as the “solar maximum.”

Though the initial interstellar punch of this storm was mild, astronomers and military officials warn the worst could be on the way.

“Everybody kind of has to be on their toes,” said Bryan DeBates, director of education for the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs.

Astronomers expect solar activity to peak in 2013, during a particularly active stretch of the sun’s 11-year cycle.

When that happens weather satellites, airplane communications, energy grids and the global positioning devices could be affected.

But predicting storms on the sun, and the damage they’ll cause, isn’t easy.

“We have a hard time predicting the weather in Colorado the way it is,” DeBates said. “Trying to predict this kind of thing on the sun is even more difficult.”

The latest storm began Jan. 22 on the sun’s northern hemisphere, where a massive explosion hurled a part of the sun’s corona into space.

Scientists on Earth detected it eight minutes later, when the first electrons — atomic particles — hit the earth. Within minutes, protons began bombarding the planet.

Those protons can damage satellite software and solar panels, said Terry Onsager, a physicist with the Space Weather Prediction Center, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The electrons and protons were the most powerful part of the storm, Onsager said. The storm registered as a three making it the strongest storm since October 2003.

But the most damaging part of the storm — the geomagnetic waves — appeared to pass north of the Earth.

“It was a glancing blow, this last storm,” Onsager said. “It was certainly a noticeable affect … but it was not a major storm.”

Those waves of ionized solar wind usually arrive a few days after the initial explosion, often wreaking havoc with the earth’s magnetic fields and ionosphere.

Satellites can be damaged or disoriented when the ionosphere’s temperature and density changes, said Geoff McHarg, director of the Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center at the Air Force Academy.

Those charged ions also can cause outages across electrical grids as they ripple across the Earth. It occasionally causes “bubbles” in the ionosphere that disrupt GPS signals — similar to how bubbles distort the view into a hot tub.

None of those problems were reported this past week.

The military satellites commanded at Schriever Air Force Base appeared unaffected.
The 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base also appeared to keep track of the more than 22,000 satellites and pieces of space junk orbiting earth — unlike what happened in 1989, when the base lost 18 percent of the space junk due to solar interference.

Airplanes, though, were told to avoid flying over the north and south poles due the possibility of navigation problems.

Some people might be wishing for more temperamental behavior from the sun in the coming year.

People in Sweden were treated to a beautiful side effect of such storms: The aurora borealis, which left green and red streaks across the sky this past week. The stronger the storm, the farther south the northern lights tend to appear.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs)

What a week for solar activity. TWO large CMEs were hurled at the Earth. This is very unusual. During solar activity maximums, such as we have now, there are about 3/week but rarely aimed at the Earth.

These were not record busters by any means but enough to alter the Earth’s magnetosphere. And being only two days apart, the second one hit while the effects of the first one was still being felt.

#1 “launched” on the 19th and arrived the 22nd. From SpaceWeather for that day:

Arriving a little later than expected, a coronal mass ejection (CME) hit Earth’s magnetic field at 0617 UT on Jan. 22nd. According to analysts at the Goddard Space Weather Lab, the impact strongly compressed Earth’s magnetic field and briefly exposed satellites in geosynchronous orbit to solar wind plasma. Shifting lines of magnetic force induced strong ground currents in Norway

This got my attention! We use Hughes.net for our internet access via a satellite 22,000 miles away. Hughes.net was bought by EchoStar in 2011 and they have a “fleet” of 15 satellites. If the CME damages “our” satellite, we will lose internet access until it is either repaired or a technician re-aims us to another satellite.

We saw little effect on our internet or TV reception (Dish Network, also by satellite).

The second CME hit on the 24th; from SpaceWeather:

As expected, a CME hit Earth’s magnetic field on Jan. 24th at approximately 1500 UT (10 am EST). The impact produced a G1-class geomagnetic storm and bright auroras around the Arctic Circle.

It usually takes a week fro the magnetoshere to recover so this one-two punch had more effect than either alone.

A view from Sweden.

And even an agency in Colorado even had a role to play.

It was a big day at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder because the scientists there once again nailed a forecast, accurately predicting not only the arrival time of the big plasma ball, give or take 30 minutes, but also the relatively modest impact.

Lots more at the Denver Post.

More on historical big CMEs from these sources:

Thursday, September 1, 1859, a 500 year event

March 13, 1989 which caused the Canadian power outage.