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Looking Deep

February 13, 2012

Thanks in part to satellites, today’s weather forecasts are much more accurate than those of just a few decades ago — particularly when it comes to predicting hurricanes and other big storms.

And today, satellites are helping to improve the forecasts of space weather — in part to protect the satellites that are forecasting Earth weather.

Space weather is the interaction between Earth and the Sun. Big storms on the surface of the Sun produce outbursts of energy and particles that can hit Earth. Such an impact can damage or destroy satellites, knock out power systems on the ground, and create general havoc with many other industries. Knowing when a big storm is brewing can help those industries protect their equipment from harm.

A study last year found that Sun-watching satellites can actually see these solar storms before they develop. Researchers from Stanford used a satellite called SOHO to detect vibrations on the Sun’s surface triggered by magnetic activity thousands of miles below the surface. A day or two after the vibrations showed up, the cool, dark magnetic storms known as sunspots appeared on the surface. Sunspots are part of the process that triggers solar storms, so seeing them before they develop could help provide longer warning times for solar storms.

The Sun’s magnetic cycle is ramping up, with the next peak expected in a year or two — a peak that could trigger intense bouts of space weather right here on Earth.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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