Harvard Scientists Watch Sun Spew Particles Toward Earth

Harvard instruments helped detect a massive solar flare, which erupted from the sun yesterday afternoon and may cause power outages and interfere with satellite communications, including purchases with credit cards and cell phones.

Astrophysicists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) shut down instruments they maintain aboard NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft for several hours yesterday in order to avoid damage from the resulting radiation.

“This is an amazing thing to happen,” said John L. Kohl, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian CfA, describing the dual coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which precipitated geomagnetic storms, radiation storms and radio blackouts.

Yesterday’s CME is the second this week. The first occurred around 6 a.m. Tuesday.

During Tuesday’s CME, the sun spewed a cloud of charged particles into space at a speed of 5 million m.p.h.

Reaching the earth in just 19 hours, it was the fastest yet recorded. Normally a CME takes about two days to reach the earth.

The physical evidence of the flares are aurorae (northern lights), which may be visible as far south as Florida for the next few days.

Yesterday’s geomagnetic storms—the result of Tuesday’s flare—reached K-9 status, the highest rating given to storms by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and are expected to continue for next few days.

Starting today, particles from the two solar flares combined will be “slamming into the magnetosphere,” increasing the already powerful impact of these CMEs, Kohl said.

Charged particles from the sun, which have been traveling at a speed of approximately 1,350 miles per second, will continue to bombard the earth for the next few days.

Effects of the solar flares have been varied.

A Japanese communications satellite malfunctioned yesterday and was taken offline for the remainder of the storm, according to Japan’s space agency.

Fire-fighting efforts in California may be hampered by the disruption of satellite communications which have replaced the microwave communication antennae destroyed by the fires.

Also, airplane passengers—especially those on transpolar flights—may experience radiation exposure equivalent to that of a chest x-ray.

Overloading of the power grid due to the current induced by the fluctuating magnetic fields may result in power outages.

Magnetically induced fluctuations in electric current are powerful enough that telegraph operators used to shut off their batteries during periods of high electromagnetic activity and use the induced power alone, Kohl said.