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Looking out for solar storms

The  Hubble and Kepler telescopes have their optical eyes on stars in distant galaxies, but what about the one that is closest to home? Our Sun is a variable star and studying solar activity has become increasingly important.

Our society depends on a network of interconnected high-tech systems like power grids, GPS navigation, air travel systems, financial services and radio communications. And all of them can be knocked out by intense solar activity. According to a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences on severe space weather events, a huge solar storm could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

In February, NASA is scheduled to launch the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, which carries instruments designed to study solar variability like no other spacecraft in NASA’s history.

The Extreme-ultraviolet Variability Experiment (EVE) instrument aboard SDO was built at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and is designed to study the extreme ultraviolet wavelengths where the Sun is the most dynamic.

During a solar flare, the Sun sends out surges of extreme-UV photons, which heat the Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing it to “puff up” and drag down low-orbiting spacecraft.

“Extreme ultra-violet is where the action is,” says LASP’s Tom Woods, the principal investigator for the EVE instrument. “EVE will reveal the Sun at its most variable.”




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