Southwest Research Institute

ScienceShot: Tracking Space Weather

Using a newly developed technique that can separate the dim light of a solar flare from the blaze of stars in the background, researchers have, for the first time, tracked a massive solar flare from the sun all the way to Earth, they reported at a NASA press briefing today. That coronal mass ejection—or CME, a type of solar flare that hurls prodigious amounts of charged particles into space—erupted from the sun in December 2008, and only now have scientists developed a way to spot material in a flare throughout its lifetime. Solar flares are bright as they erupt from the sun, but after the first few hours they diffuse to near invisibility. By the time a typical CME crosses the orbit of Venus, its material glows only 1 billionth as brightly as the full moon, yet it's still strong enough to damage power grids and satellites. The new analytical tool, which dissects data gathered by five cameras on a probe orbiting the sun far from Earth, provides scientists with the ability to track CMEs from the time they burst from the solar atmosphere (top) to the point at which they near Earth (bottom). That capability will allow researchers to better observe the evolving size, shape, speed, and magnetic field of massive flares and therefore better predict when the CME will slam Earth and what its effects might be.

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