Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Keeping an eye on sun through solar observatory


A first-of-its-kind solar observatory, set to launch Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is intended at providing a better understanding of the sun and its role in space weather such as solar flares, which can wreak havoc on Earth, officials said. The Solar Dynamics Observatory and its Atlas V rocket rolled out Tuesday to the initiate pad.

Because of high winds at the launch place, forecasters put odds of acceptable conditions for launch at 30 percent, NASA said on its Web site. The observatory is planned to deliver solar images with resolution 10 times better than high-definition television, according to NASA.

The five-year mission "will establish how the sun's magnetic field is generated, structured and transformed into violent solar events like turbulent solar wind, solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections," according to the agency.

The solar wind, a stream of electrically charged particles fluid out from the sun, fills the entire solar system with charged particles and magnetic fields, according to NASA.

Solar flares are real explosions in the sun's atmosphere, the largest of them equal to billions of one-megaton nuclear bombs. And Coronal Mass Ejections, or CMEs, are eruptions that launch solar material into space at a high speed.

Such events can place astronauts at risk, in addition to aircraft flying over Earth's North or South Poles, and can also disrupt satellite communications, navigational systems and power grids, NASA said. In 1969, for example, a solar current knocked a power grid serving Quebec, Canada, off-line for nine hours. That's a direct crash on life and society, said Richard Fisher, director of NASA's Heliophysics Division and he is in charge of Wednesday's launch.

In addition, changes in magnetic energy such as those around sunspots can alter Global Positioning System signals, making them less accurate. If you're landing a great big jet airliner in a low-visibility state and you have one of these events that causes a misunderstanding of location by 150 to 200 yards, that's big substance when you're trying to hit a runway with these instruments, Fisher said.

There's no way to forecast space weather. Officials expect the Solar Dynamics Observatory can provide information to help change that.

The observatory contains three major instruments that scientists consider will send data back to Earth for at least five years. The Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager and the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly will permit scientists to see the sun in high resolution.

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