Internet reveals solar explosion's target 6-07-99
<font size=1>Monday, June 7, 1999 Published at 18:18 GMT 19:18 UK </font><br><br>
Internet reveals solar<br>
<IMG SRC="http://news.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/360000/images/_363358_sun300.jpg"><br><font size=1><b>
Astronomers did not know if it was heading our way. </b></font><br><br>
<b>By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David
A tremendous explosion took place on the surface of the
Sun last Tuesday and for a few very nervous hours
astronomers did not know whether it was heading for
The blast threw a jet of superheated plasma carrying
magnetic energy into space at speeds of 1,000
kilometres per second (600 miles per second).
However, using the speed of the Internet, astronomers
around the world rapidly compared images and decided
that a worldwide alert was unnecessary.
<IMG SRC="http://news.bbc.co.uk/olmedia/360000/images/_363358_suni150.jpg" align="left" alt="The aftermath of the explosion"> The Solar and Heliospheric Observer (SOHO) satellite
observed the solar explosion, which astronomers call a
coronal mass ejection (CME).
The explosive event was "a
real planet-buster", according
to Dr Richard Fisher of
Nasa's Goddard Space Flight
If the magnetic energy within
the cloud of superhot gas
had interacted with the
Earth's magnetic field it
would have sparked
spectacular aurora at polar
But more worryingly it could also induce power
blackouts, block radio communications and trigger
phantom commands capable of sending satellites
spinning out of their proper orbits.
Cellular phones, global positioning signals and
space-walking astronauts were all at risk. <p>
<b> Hit or miss?</b>
"When the coronal mass ejection was observed we were
not sure whether the mass ejection was moving toward
the Earth or directly away from the Earth" said Paal
Brekke, SOHO Deputy Project Scientist.
Astronomers were particularly concerned that the event
was followed by an increase in the flux of sub-atomic
particles from the Sun.
So the scientists quickly downloaded Internet images of
the Sun taken by observatories in the USA, Austria,
Australia, and Japan. They then compared images the
taken before and after the event.
"Because the data are so distributed and so accessible
we were able to identify and track this event," said one
astronomer. "Even just a few years ago, this kind of
instant international collaboration would have been
Fortunately, it was soon established that the CME was
headed directly away from the Earth - this time.
Preliminary analysis by Dr Simon Plunkett, of the Naval
Research Laboratory in the United States, shows that if
the CME were travelling towards the Earth, it would have
arrived in just two and a half days.
<b> The other Y2K problem </b>
Solar activity waxes and wanes in an 11-year cycle,
which is expected to peak sometime early next year.
Astronomers point out that the solar menace comes at
the same time as computers around the world could
struggle to cope with problems caused by the
Millennium or Year 2000 (Y2K) bug.
Some solar physicists have called the effects from the
Sun "the other Y2K problem".
"The SOHO satellite will play a key role in early
detection of solar storms, which is important for issuing
warnings," added Dr Brekke.
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