Solar Storms






Solar Storms, Another Obstacle Entering the New Millenium?
Storms in space could have a devastating effect on our society. Solar storms are a result of solar flares and are electromagnetic in nature. They are capable of causing power outages and halting all types of communication, including; electronic pagers; radio and television broadcasts; credit card transactions; military communications; etc.
Solar flares are cyclical, usually over a period of eleven years. There are three basic stages to a solar flare. The first stage is the precursor stage, where the release of magnetic energy is triggered. In the second or impulsive stage, radio waves are emitted. During the third or decay stage, the gradual build up and decay of soft x-rays can be detected.
The frequency of these stages coincides with the sun\'s eleven-year cycle. When the solar cycle is at a minimum, these flares are smaller and happen less frequently. As the sun approaches the maximum part of its cycle, these increase in intensity and frequency.
Solar flares are explosions that are believed to be caused by the sudden release of energy that is stored in the solar atmosphere. The gases on the outer layer of the sun behave like a pot of boiling liquid, sort of rolling or bubbling back and forth. These are called ionized gases or plasma. They drag the magnetic field of the sun with it, twisting it and strengthening it. In some of theses regions the magnetic field becomes very strong and they break out into the solar atmosphere. These structures act like magnets that break and connect with each other. During this process the structures that act like opposing magnets become unstable and are released into the atmosphere as a solar flare. These gases are believed to be two million degrees Fahrenheit. The particles that escape into interplanetary space are dangerous to all electronic instruments and life sources in space.
The solar wind containing these hot gases races toward the edges of the solar system, and smash in to the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere protects the earth by deflecting most of the solar wind around the planet. Trillions of these charged particles mange to get through and project from the North and South poles. Energy released in this fashion excites atoms of nitrogen and oxygen, which in turn emit pulses of colored light. These formations are called an aurora. The aurora borealis, which are visible in Alaska, are a result of this sort of space storm.
In 1989, during our most recent solar maximum, currents induced by a geomagnetic storm brought down the power grid that supplies Canada\'s Quebec province. The next solar maximum expected in the year 2000 have the capacity of even greater damage. Our society has even greater dependence on electronic modes of communication as well as power sources (grids), which are enormous and interconnected, (in order to save money). This also increases the vulnerability to power outages. If, there were extended power outages in the heat of the summer, or during a cold wave, the losses would not only be financial, but would also include a large human toll.
The U.S. military is very vulnerable to the potentially devastating effects of solar flares during the solar maximum cycle. The military relies on the accuracy of its electronic equipment for communications, ballistic missile early warning, navigation, weather prediction, and surveillance capabilities. All of these systems can be halted or seriously impaired as a result of this solar storm that is expected during the beginning of the new millenium.
The military\'s communications and intelligence satellites were robust enough to withstand the interferences of the last Solar Maximum. Critical data was able to pass, but much more slowly than under normal conditions. The intelligence satellites are built to withstand very high levels of radiation so the satellites were not crippled. However, the information they relayed to ground stations suffered the same dissemination constraints as the communication satellites. The military has increased its reliance on satellites since the last Solar Maximum with the implementation of the Global Broadcast Service, designed to pass intelligence and enable instant communication anywhere in the world, as well as the Global Positioning System constellation of satellites.
The military expects signals from the Global Positioning System to be inaccurate and at times there will be complete failure during the upcoming Solar