Solar scientists have no doubt been impatiently waiting for tomorrow's scheduled 10:26 a.m. launch of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory from Kennedy Space Center (moved back a day due to Shuttle Endeavour's weather delay on Sunday). Aviation Week has been reporting on SDO and all the preparations for the upcoming launch [subscription only]. Once SDO is up in its geosynchronous orbit, the quality and quantity of data it collects should revolutionize our understanding of the Sun's inner workings, help scientists develop prediction models, and, using those models, be better able to protect our communications and other satellite systems from solar weather.
Image of coronal mass ejection taken on February 5, 2010 by NASA's SOHO.
Not coincidentally, this is an exciting time to begin a study of the Sun. We're finally coming out of a terribly slow period of solar activity. As noted last year by David Hathaway of the Marshall Space Flight Center, "this is the quietest we've seen the Sun in almost a century." That's all changing though, as 2010 has been a boon of activity so far. Spaceweather.com has recorded only two sun-spotless days so far, where as 2009 saw a full 260 days with no sunspot activity. Right now, in fact, there are three sunspots, one of which -- Sunspot 1045 -- is harboring quite a bit of energy, enough to send a slew of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) our way. Those of you to the north should keep an eye out for Northern Lights starting tonight through Thursday.
Of course, while they're making spectacular views in the sky, these CMEs are exactly the kind of thing that mess up our...well, everything. NASA explains:
Modern people depend on a network of interconnected high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services, emergency radio communications—they can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. According to a 2008 study by the National Academy of Sciences, a century-class solar storm could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.
And lest we think of a "century-class solar storm" as a remote possibility, we need only turn your attention to the Mid-Atlantic (including all of us here at Aviation Week HQ), which is being slammed with a century-class winter snowstorm this week. In 2006, NASA reported that "in nearly-two centuries since the 11-year sunspot cycle was discovered, scientists have struggled to predict the size of future maxima—and failed." During its five-year mission, SDO should give us the data so that we can predict this activity and protect our global systems, every day and especially in these devastating worst-case scenarios.
Those of you in the D.C. area who are interested in solar weather should take time to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Their new Public Observatory was built specifically for daytime observing and is a great opportunity to view solar activity (sunspots, prominences) with your very own eyes. (Note: I'm a volunteer at the Observatory once a week.)