When meteorologists noticed a sudden degradation and then a total loss of GOES satellite imagery late Tuesday evening, they turned to the NOAA Space Environment Center (SEC) and the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) for an explanation.
While the main news story this week has been focused on our astronauts performing a major mission aboard the International Space Station, space scientists have also had their eyes on a developing solar storm on the Sun. Solar storms arise when relatively cold spots on the Sun (called Sun Spots) allow intense magnetic fields to break through the Sun’s surface. Solar flares release this intense magnetic energy into space, which is then carried away at amazing speeds by the solar wind.
At 840 PM Tuesday evening, an intense solar flare was released by the Sun, classied an incredible X3. Not only is an event of this magnitude extraordinary under normal circumstances, but it is even more impressive since we are presently in the minimum of the 11 year sun spot cycle. As seen here, X class solar flares are considered major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms. It took just 3 hours for the storm to reach the earth’s orbit, causing dropouts of GOES weather satellite imagery. You can clearly see the spike in activity in this proton flux monitor chart.
Thankfully, space shuttle astronauts are shielded from the extra dose of radiation, but space walk efforts today and Thursday could be postponed.
There is good news however for the observer. A solar storm of this magnitude, when directed toward Earth, can trigger impressive Northern Lights displays. Persons over northern latitudes may really be in luck Wednesday night when the potential for Northern Lights will coincide with the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, already expected to be quite impressive. Clear skies, a waning moon, and unseasonably mild December temperatures will allow for near perfect viewing conditions.
Go here for Current Space Weather Conditions.
Lead Meteorologist, Evan Bookbinder