NASA and NOAA agree: Solar Max has arrived, but this “mini Max” is not like any other solar maximum of the Space Age.
A coronal mass ejection burst off the side of the sun on May 9, 2014. The giant sheet of solar material erupting was the first CME seen by NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, or IRIS. The field of view seen here is about five Earths wide and about seven-and-a-half Earths tall.
Image Credit: NASA/LMSAL/IRIS/SDO/Goddard
IRIS must commit to pointing at certain areas of the sun at least a day in advance, so catching a CME in the act involves some educated guesses and a little bit of luck.
“We focus in on active regions to try to see a flare or a CME,” said Bart De Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. “And then we wait and hope that we’ll catch something. This is the first clear CME for IRIS so the team is very excited.”
The IRIS imagery focuses in on material of 30,000 kelvins at the base, or foot points, of the CME. The line moving across the middle of the movie is the entrance slit for IRIS’s spectrograph, an instrument that can split light into its many wavelengths – a technique that ultimately allows scientists to measure temperature, velocity and density of the solar material behind the slit.
The field of view for this imagery is about five Earths wide and about seven-and-a-half Earths tall.
Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory designed the IRIS Observatory and manages the mission. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, provides mission operations and ground data systems. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the Explorers Program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.
Karen C. Fox
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
The Goddard Space Flight Center presents this video accompanied by the perfect symphonic background. Relax and Enjoy a break from life.
On April 2, 2014, the sun emitted an M6.5 mid-level solar flare, peaking at 10:05 a.m. EDT, and NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured imagery of the event.
Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however — when intense enough — they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.
This video from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the flare in a blend of two wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light: 304 Angstroms and 171 Angstroms, colorized in yellow and red, respectively.
In the giant system that connects Earth to the sun, one key event happens over and over: solar material streams toward Earth and the giant magnetic bubble around Earth, the magnetosphere helps keep it at bay. The parameters, however, change: The particles streaming in could be from the constant solar wind, or perhaps from a giant cloud erupting off the sun called a coronal mass ejection, or CME. Sometimes the configuration is such that the magnetosphere blocks almost all the material, other times the connection is long and strong, allowing much material in. Understanding just what circumstances lead to what results is a key part of protecting our orbiting spacecraft from the effects of such space weather.
Now, for the first time, a study shows that in certain circumstances a pool of dense particles normally circling Earth, deep inside the magnetosphere, can extend a long arm out to meet – and help block – incoming solar material.
“It’s like what you might do if a monster tried to break into your house. You’d stack furniture up against the front door, and that’s close to what the Earth is doing here,” said Brian Walsh, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “The material that is usually much nearer Earth stacks up against the outer boundary of the magnetosphere, throttling the interaction there and stopping solar material from entering.”
In the March 6, 2014, issue of Science Express, Walsh and his colleagues compared observations from the ground and in space during a solar storm on Jan. 17, 2013. This was a fairly moderate solar storm caused by a CME impacting Earth’s magnetosphere for several hours. As the CME encountered the boundary of the magnetosphere, its magnetic fields and those around Earth realigned in a process called magnetic reconnection, which allowed energy and solar material to cross the boundary into the magnetosphere. NASA’s three THEMIS – for Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms – spacecraft were in the right place at the right time, flying through the magnetosphere’s boundary approximately 45 minutes apart, and caught this interaction.
Closer to Earth, scientists could also study the sphere of cold dense gas at the very top of our atmosphere. This region is called the plasmasphere and it’s made of what’s known as plasma, a gas made of charged particles. GPS signals travel through the plasmasphere and they travel at different speeds depending on how thick or thin the plasmasphere is along the journey. Tracking the GPS radio signals, therefore, can help researchers map out the properties of the plasmasphere.
“A colleague who works with these kind of observations said I had to see some interesting data showing a plume from the ground,” said Walsh. “And I typed in the dates and saw that it was a date when THEMIS was in the right position. So, for the first time, we could make a comparison.”
THEMIS showed that the tongue of this cold, dense plasmasphere material stretched all the way up to the magnetic reconnection point where the CME had made contact with the magnetopause. The three sets of THEMIS observations demonstrated that the plume had a dramatic impact on the characteristics of the magnetic reconnection region.
“It wouldn’t work if the magnetic reconnection happened for only a few minutes,” said David Sibeck the project scientist for THEMIS at NASA Goddard. “But if it lasts long enough, the whole magnetosphere gets involved. This tongue of the plasmasphere surges out, adding another layer of protection, curbing the magnetic reconnection.”
As scientists try to better understand the space weather system around Earth, they rely on multipoint observations such as this to connect what’s seen on the ground to what’s seen in space. In this case THEMIS data connected to GPS data, but such combinations are increasingly being used to watch how Earth is affected by its closest star. Eventually such observations could lead to improvements in space weather predictions, which would be as useful for spacecraft operators as terrestrial weather forecasts are for us here on Earth.
Karen C. Fox
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SOHO) captured this dynamic image of a huge CME coming off the surface of our Sun early this morning.
On a scale of X1 thru X9, this massive eruption was rated as an X4.9. Although not directly aimed at the Earth, this CME may give us a glancing blow. Traveling at over 4 million miles per hour, a direct hit from a flare of this magnitude could create severe geomagnetic storms around the Earth resulting in power blackouts and high radiation levels. It appears we have gotten lucky once again.
The sunspot that caused this flare is on its third pass around the Sun, which is unusual. Known as AR 1967 during this latest event, it will now be called AR 1990 as it makes its way around to the Earth facing side.
Look for more activity from this this sunspot in the days to come.
In the image below, the white specks seen in the foreground indicate a proton event from the CME is being imaged by SOHO. The chart below that confirms the image.
2014-01-08 12:30 UTC G3 (Strong) Geomagnetic Storming Expected
SWPC Forecasters are anticipating G3 (Strong) Geomagnetic Storm conditions to occur on January 9 and 10. The source of this disturbance is a fairly fast Earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME) launched from centrally-located Region 1944 at 1832 UTC (1:32 p.m. EST) on January 7. Full evaluation and modeling of this event has refined the forecast and indicates a fairly direct interaction with Earth, with the WSA-Enlil model putting arrival mid-morning UTC on January 9 (very early morning EST). In addition, the S2 (Moderate) Solar Radiation Storm associated with this event is currently near, but below, the S3 (Strong) threshold, with values leveling off at this time. At the Sun, Region 1944 remains well-placed and energetic. Updates here as this event progresses.
What does this mean to us?
Using the map below, find where you live which will be along or in between the lines showing the KP Index. In a G3 or strong geomagnetic storm the KP Index = 7. If you reside on or above this line, the chance of seeing an Aurora is increased when the storm arrives.
Note: Unless you are flying at high altitudes during an S2 or S3 Radiation Storm, there is no cause for worry as the Earth is protected at lower altitudes from this radiation.
Updates will follow as I receive them. Or visit the following sites:
Latest Update: 2014-01-10 12:02 UTC Space Weather Update
The coronal mass ejection (CME) associated with the R3 (Strong) Solar Flare Radio Blackout event from January 7th appears to have only had minor effects on Earth. Initial indications of a weak structure held true for the remainder of the period and the anticipated geomagnetic storming never materialized. While increased activity is still possible, it now appears improbable. The ongoing Solar Radiation Storm remains near the S2 (Moderate) threshold, but continues its trend towards background levels. Region 1944 had no significant flaring and continues to exhibit signs of decay. Updates here as conditions warrant.
Previous Update: 2014-01-10 01:15 UTC Modest Start to Geomagnetic Storm
The coronal mass ejection (CME) associated with the R3 (Strong) Solar Flare Radio Blackout event from January 7th is now affecting Earth but the resulting geomagnetic storm is off to a modest start, with no substantial storming occurring thus far. The initial structure of this CME has been relatively weak in strength, but that said, it generally takes on the order of 24 hours or more for the full event to transpire and stronger storming is certainly still possible. The ongoing Solar Radiation Storm, still just above the S2 (Moderate) threshold, continues it slow decay toward background levels. Additionally, Region 1944 is showing some signs of decay and no significant flaring has been observed in the last 48 hours. Stay tuned for updates.
Previous Update: 2014-01-09 20:02 UTC CME Has Arrived
The coronal mass ejection (CME), originally expected to arrive around 0800 UTC (3:00 a.m. EST) today, January 9, was observed at the ACE spacecraft just upstream of Earth at 1932 UTC (2:32 p.m. EST). It’s too early to see much with respect to the magnetic structure of this CME, but short-term, high-confidence warnings will be issued as this event plays out. The original forecast continues to be for G3 (Strong) Geomagnetic Storm activity on January 9 and 10. Aurora watchers may be in luck for tonight. The ongoing Solar Radiation Storm, currently at S2 (Moderate) levels, is seeing a modest enhancement with this shock passage but remains below S3 (Strong) threshold at this time. Updates here as this event unfolds.
Previous Update: 2014-01-09 12:36 UTC Awaiting CME Arrival
The ongoing Solar Radiation Storm peaked briefly just above the S3 (Strong) threshold but is now in decay and currently at S2 (Moderate) levels. Enhancement back across the S3 level is possible with the anticipated coronal mass ejection (CME) arrival. The CME, originally expected to arrive around 0800 UTC (3:00 a.m. EST) today, January 9, is now slightly overdue. However, pre-arrival signatures from EPAM data on the ACE spacecraft still show this transient en route. G3 (Strong) Geomagnetic Storm activity is still expected on January 9 and 10. Updates here as this event unfolds.
Update: 2014-01-09 00:03 UTC S3 (Strong) Solar Radiation Storm In Progress
The ongoing S2 (Moderate) Solar Radiation Storm has intensified to an S3 (Strong) event as of 2320 UTC (6:20 p.m. EST) today, January 8. Protons should stay at this same approximate level for the next few hours, then likely take another jump with the passage of the shock ahead of the CME, expected to occur around 0900 UTC (4:00 a.m. EST) tomorrow, January 9. However, this increase is not expected to exceed the S3 level. The CME is forecast to set off G3 (Strong) Geomagnetic Storm activity through January 9 and 10. Aurora watchers should be ready; updates here as things unfold.