Video: Earth dodges solar storm

  1. Closed captioning of: Earth dodges solar storm

    >>> at this time last night we were being told by the nation's weather experts at noaa to expect a "severe geomagnetic storm " because of a major flare, a ball of plasma and energy, that had exploded from the surface of the sun on tuesday night. the dire predictions of what it would do to our planet didn't quite come true today. but the headline here may be we're in for more of these storms. tom costello has been watching all of it for us today in where wash.

    >> reporter: hi, brian. good evening. scientists say the planet may have lucked out. they were expecting a category 3 storm. they got a category 1 storm and a minor one at that. and while it hit at about 6:00 a.m . eastern time , because of the earth's spin we seem to have dodged the worst of it. so far we've had no reports of serious problems with radio communications , satellite or gps connectivity or power grids . they've all apparently stayed online. but all of those systems can be vulnerable to a solar storm . what we did get is very colorful northern lights early this morning. take a look at beautiful time lapse video from michigan. that far south. showing beautiful bright-colored auroras in the night sky . astronomers do say we could be in for more solar storms in the coming months as the activity on the sun peaks sometime next year. brian?

    >> let's hope those colors are the only impact. tom costello in d.c. tom, thanks. and

By
updated 3/8/2012 10:18:21 PM ET 2012-03-09T03:18:21

Our high-tech world seems to have easily weathered a solar storm that didn't quite live up to its advance billing.

While some experts think the threat from the solar storm passed by Thursday afternoon, space weather forecasters said it's still too early to relax. That's because there's a chance the storm's effects could continue and even intensify through Friday morning.

And while this solar storm may have fizzled, others may be lining up in the cosmic shooting gallery in the coming days, month and year, the scientists agree.

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"It looks to me like it's over," NASA solar physicist David Hathaway said late Thursday afternoon, after noticing a drop in a key magnetic reading.

That conclusion is premature, said Doug Biesecker, a space scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., which forecasts solar storms. He pointed to an increase in a different magnetic field measurement.

Strong storm was feared
The storm, which started with a solar flare Tuesday evening, caused a stir Wednesday because forecasts were for a strong storm with the potential to knock electrical grids offline, mess with GPS and harm satellites. It even forced airlines to reroute a few flights on Thursday.

It was never seen as a threat to people, just technology, and teased skywatchers with the prospect of colorful northern lights dipping further south.

But when the storm finally arrived around 6 a.m. ET Thursday, after traveling at 2.7 million mph, it was more a magnetic breeze than a gale. The power stayed on. So did GPS and satellites.

"I think we just lucked out," Jeffrey Hughes, director of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University, said Thursday afternoon. "It just didn't pack as strong a magnetic field as we were anticipating."

Scientists initially figured the storm would be the worst since 2006, but now it seems only as bad as ones a few months ago, said Joe Kunches, a scientist at the NOAA center. The strongest storm in recorded history was probably in 1859, he said.

"It's not a terribly strong event. It's a very interesting event," Kunches said.

Forecasters can predict the speed at which a solar storm travels as well as its strength, but the north-south orientation is the wild card. This time it was a northern orientation, which is "pretty benign," Kunches said. A southern orientation would have caused the most damaging technological disruption and biggest auroras.

North American utilities didn't report any problems, said Kimberly Mielcarek, spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a consortium of electricity grid operators.

Relatively quiet ... until recently
Astronomers say the sun has been relatively quiet for some time. And this storm, forecast to be strong and ending up minor, still may seem fiercer because Earth has been lulled by several years of weak solar activity.

The storm is part of the sun's normal 11-year cycle, which is supposed to reach a peak next year. Storms as large as the latest one will probably happen several more times as the cycle ramps up to that peak, scientists said.

The region of the sun that erupted can still send more blasts our way, Kunches said. Another set of active sunspots is ready to aim at Earth.

"This is a big sunspot group, particularly nasty," NASA's Hathaway said. "Things are really twisted up and mixed up. It keeps flaring."

Storms like this start with sunspots. First, there's an initial solar flare of subatomic particles that resembles a filament coming out of the sun. That part usually reaches Earth only minutes after the initial burst, bringing radio and radiation disturbances. Next is the coronal mass ejection, which looks like a growing bubble and takes a couple days to reach Earth.

Solar storms have three ways they can disrupt technology on Earth: with magnetic, radio and radiation emissions. In 1989, a strong solar storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec, causing 6 million people to lose power.

For North America, the good part of a solar storm — the one that creates more noticeable auroras or Northern Lights — was likely to peak Thursday evening. Auroras were likely to dip only as far south as the northern edges of the United States, Kunches said, but a full moon would make them harder to see.

Solar storms can bring additional radiation around the north and south poles — a risk that sometimes forces airlines to reroute flights. On Thursday, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines sent 11 flights to Asia on a more southern route rather than their more common path over the Arctic. Three American Airlines flights flew lower than normal over the northernmost parts of their routes to Japan and China.

More about space storms and auroras:

AP business writers Josh Freed and David Koenig contributed to this report.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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