Can a new Warning System Predict Arrival of Harmful Solar Radiation

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Given that the world and space are now studded with satellites and sensors like never before, it makes sense that scientists can extrapolate information from past events to predict what will come next. 

According to, physicists at universities in South Korea and the U.S. have come up with a solar storm warning system. They collected data from inside and outside neutron monitors at the South Pole, where the fast moving particles from a solar eruption are likely to arrive first. 

They used data from 12 solar storms and matched their observations to those that were  made by geosynchronous satellites. Then they found comparison between results for charged particles with energies, measured in megaelectron volts, that were higher than 40 million to 80 million.

The higher energy gives less lead time for radiation that will hit objects and people in space. It takes around 10 minutes for the first solar radiation particles to hit Earth, but the stakes are higher outside of Earth's atmosphere and protective magnetic field, especially when astronauts or vehicles are headed to Mars, deeper space, or the Moon.

The scientists were actually looking for the slower moving particles. Because they are more plentiful, they are able cause the most problems. They used data from the fast moving particles to estimate when the others will arrive.

Joseph Kunches is a scientist at the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center. He explains the impact of the slower moving particles this way. "Generally speaking, if they're slower, they'll deposit all of the energy into your body because they're not fast enough to fly right through,"

The universities involved were Chungnam National University and Hanyang University in South Korea and the University of Delaware in the U.S. The National Research Foundation of Korea, the South Korean government,  the U.S. National Science Foundation, and NASA joined forces to fund the research.

The ability to make predictions about solar radiation is important because 2012 and especially 2013 when the solar flare cycle is expected to reach its peak. According to The Capitol Column, NASA says that "Solar flares release a wave of ions that can damage satellites, interfere with navigation or communication signals, and damage power plant infrastructure. Scientists say we should expect many more of these sun storms before the year is through, with varying results and ramifications."

The predictions could help airlines to reroute planes and scientists to move satellites out of the way.

July 9th has been an example of high activity with two major solar flares on July 6 and July 12. On the 12th, a huge X-class 1.4 storm labeled as Active Region (AR) 1520 erupted as the strongest storm of the Summer.  X-class solar flares are the most powerful kinds of flares that the Sun can produce. 

Huliq notes that the strongest solar flare ever recorded was in 2006 when an X-class flare registered an X9 on the space weather scale.  According to CNET, the Carrington Event of 1859 is believed to have been a combination of the two most intense geomagnetic storms in the history of the electronic age. That event caused such powerful green and white auroras that telegraph operators were able to disconnect their batteries and use aurora power to send messages.

The ejection from AR1520 is expected to slam into the Earth at 1 AM on July 16. The impact could cause a geomagnetic storm, but at X1.4, experts say it should be a minor event.

More about this author: Elizabeth M Young

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