For the first time, a spacecraft far from Earth has turned and watched a solar storm engulf our planet. The movie, released today during a NASA press conference, has galvanized solar physicists, who say it could lead to important advances in space weather forecasting.
“The movie sent chills down my spine,” says Craig DeForest of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "It shows a CME swelling into an enormous wall of plasma and then washing over the tiny blue speck of Earth where we live. I felt very small.”
A wide-angle movie recorded by NASA's STEREO-A spacecraft shows a solar storm traveling all the way from the sun to Earth and engulfing our planet.
CMEs are billion-ton clouds of solar plasma launched by the same explosions that spark solar flares. When they sweep past our planet, they can cause auroras, radiation storms, and in extreme cases power outages. Tracking these clouds and predicting their arrival is an important part of space weather forecasting.
“We have seen CMEs before, but never quite like this,” says Lika Guhathakurta, program scientist for the STEREO mission at NASA headquarters. “STEREO-A has given us a new view of solar storms.”
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STEREO-A is one of two spacecraft launched in 2006 to observe solar activity from widely-spaced locations. At the time of the storm, STEREO-A was more than 65 million miles from Earth, giving it the “big picture” view other spacecraft in Earth orbit have been missing.
When CMEs first leave the sun, they are bright and easy to see. Visibility is quickly reduced, however, as the clouds expand into the void. By the time a typical CME crosses the orbit of Venus, it is a billion times fainter than the surface of the full Moon, and more than a thousand times fainter than the Milky Way. CMEs that reach Earth are almost as gossamer as vacuum itself and correspondingly transparent.