With the help of NASA spacecraft observations and new data processing techniques, scientists can for the first time track the effects of a solar storm on Earth, offering new advancements in our ability to predict space weather and how it will impact satellites, communications, power grid and air traffic control equipment on Earth.
The solar storms, called Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), are being observed from NASA’s twin Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO, spacecraft launched in 2006. The duo represents a key component within a fleet of NASA spacecraft that enhance the capability to predict solar storms.
New processing techniques used on STEREO data allow scientists to see how solar eruptions develop into space storms at the Earth.
"The clarity these new images provide will improve the observational inputs into space weather models for better forecasting,” said Lika Guhathakurta, STEREO programme scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
CMEs are billion-ton clouds of solar plasma launched by the same Sun explosions that spark solar flares. When they sweep past Earth, they can cause auroras, radiation storms that can disrupt sensitive electronics on satellites, and in extreme cases, power outages. Better tracking of these clouds and the ability to predict their arrival is an important part of space weather forecasting.
These observations can pinpoint not only the arrival time of the CME, but also it’s mass. When this technique is applied to future storms, forecasters will be able to say with confidence whether Earth is about to be hit by a small or large cloud, and where on the Sun the material originated.