NASA Downplays Solar Flare Hype

While some of the coverage of the massive Valentine's Day solar flare made it sound like the world was coming to an end, or darn close to it. NASA's website this afternoon played another likely more realistic tune:

"The particle cloud produced by the Valentine's Day event appears to be rather weak and is not expected to produce any strong effects at Earth other than perhaps some beautiful aurora in the high northern and southern latitudes on Feb. 17."

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Not that there isn't some cause for concern since the flare was the strongest such Sun event in four years.

From NASA: This particular X class flare comes on the heels of a few M-class and several C-class flares over the past few days. It also has a CME associated with it that is traveling about 900 Km/second and is expected to reach Earth's orbit on Feb. 16 at about 10 p.m. EST.

X-class flares are the most powerful of all solar events that can trigger radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.

NASA scientists classify solar flares according to their x-ray brightness in the wavelength range 1 to 8 Angstroms. There are 3 categories: X-class flares are major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms. M-class flares are medium-sized; they can cause brief radio blackouts that affect Earth's polar regions. Minor radiation storms sometimes follow M-class flares. Compared to X- and M-class, C-class flares are small with few noticeable consequences on Earth, NASA stated.

A NASA-funded study in 2009 showed some of the risk extreme weather conditions in space have on the Earth. The study, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences notes that besides emitting a continuous stream of plasma called the solar wind, the sun periodically releases billions of tons of matter called coronal mass ejections. These immense clouds of material, when directed toward Earth, can cause large magnetic storms in the magnetosphere and upper atmosphere, NASA said. Such space weather can impact the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems, NASA said.

One of the driving reasons for the study is that the sun is currently near the minimum of its 11-year activity cycle but solar storms will increase in frequency and intensity toward the next solar maximum, expected to occur around 2012.

For example, space weather can:

  • Produce solar storm electromagnetic fields that induce extreme currents in wires, disrupting power lines, causing wide-spread blackouts and affecting communication cables that support the Internet.
  • Produce solar energetic particles and the dislocation of the Earth's radiation belts, which can damage satellites used for commercial communications, global positioning and weather forecasting.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8

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