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Mar 10 2012

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Solar Storm Could Disrupt Summer Olympics

SOLAR SCIENCE

by Staff Writers
Guildford, England (UPI) Mar 9, 2012

Age of warning satellite causes concern
Washington (UPI) Mar 9, 2012 -A U.S. satellite giving the only advance warning of incoming high-energy solar particles is getting old and is possibly on its last legs, researchers say.But a replacement for NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE, satellite is at least two years away, they said.ACE provides the only advance notice of incoming high-energy particles from the sun which can wreak havoc on indispensable radio, GPS and satellite communications, researchers said.

Launched in 1997, ACE gives the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s space weather forecasting arm advance notice if a storm is headed toward Earth, as it did with the solar storm that left the sun Tuesday.

How much longer the satellite can keep working is a concern, scientists said.

“It would be a very bad day for us if that spacecraft was not working,” William Murtagh, program coordinator for NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., told Discovery News.

“When an eruption occurs on the sun, there are still quite a few question marks as to if it’s going to hit the Earth and when it’s going to hit the Earth,” he said.

From about 1 million miles away, ACE provides the only early warning of what’s headed toward Earth and utility operators, airlines, satellite owners, GPS users and others depend on space weather alerts from NOAA.

“ACE is a single point of failure and it’s old,” Murtagh said. “Every time I have a space weather storm I cringe a little bit that our very own space weather satellite doesn’t succumb to the storms I’m relying on it to help forecast.

The Summer Olympics could be crippled by a solar storm far more potent than the one currently wearing away at Earth’s magnetic field, a British physicist said.

“We have the potential this year to see what planners call a Black Swan event — one that is unlikely but if it happens will have an extraordinary impact on our lives,” Alan Woodward, a physicist and computer scientist at England’s University of Surrey, told the British newspaper The Guardian.

“The last similar event was the Japanese tsunami, which caused massive physical damage,” he said.

The devastating earthquake and tsunami — whose first anniversary is Sunday — killed nearly 16,000 people and led to a nuclear crisis and huge leaks of radiation.

“This year we could see equally devastating results from the disappearance of our computer systems,” Woodward said.

Radiation from the superfast bombardment of highly charged clouds of solar energy would likely pose little or no health risk. But it could disable computers and other electronics critical to the Olympic Games, which take place in London July 27 through Aug. 12, Woodward said.

“As the 2012 Olympics approach, we have a convergence of an event that is the most connected, computer-intensive event ever with a record level of sunspot activity, which typically leads to solar flares,” he said.

Solar flares are colossal releases of energy rocketed out into space that have been measured to be the equivalent of as much as 160 billion megatons of TNT.

The International Olympic Committee and the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games had no immediate comment on the prediction or whether they’ve taken precautions, such as “hardening” computer systems to withstand the effects of electrical interference.

The peak of sun-storm activity, including “solar wind,” light isotope plasma and magnetic fields bursting into space — a phenomenon known as a coronal mass ejection — is predicted to occur next year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.

The current storm, which arrived Thursday and continued Friday, caused fewer problems than NOAA forecast.

“We estimated the speed but we missed the spin on the ball,” Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, told Fox News Channel.

Some U.S. airlines diverted long-haul flights that pass near the North Pole because passengers and crew members could be exposed to intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation at high latitudes.

Airplanes could also suffer from communications issues, Delta Air Lines Inc. spokesman Anthony Black told Fox News.

Delta flew alternative routes for at least seven flights between U.S. and Asian cities, he said.

“At the moment, the earth’s magnetic field is trying to deflect the solar material around the earth, and scientists … around the world are monitoring the situation to see if our magnetic shield will hold up,” Jonathan Eastwood, a research fellow in space and atmospheric physics at London’s Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, told The Guardian.

There’s a good chance, he said, the magnetic field’s protection would break down some time Friday, leading to a geomagnetic storm, or a temporary disturbance in Earth’s magnetic field.

“Such events act as a wake-up call as to how our modern Western lifestyles are utterly dependent on space technology and national power grid infrastructure,” Craig Underwood, deputy director of Surrey University’s Surrey Space Center and head of the Planetary Environments Group, told The Guardian.

 

Related Links
Solar Science News at SpaceDaily

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