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Space Weather

Space weather is a term used to describe the effects of the sun on the near Earth environment that can impact space operations and ground based systems. Space weather is influenced by solar winds, flares, and coronal mass ejections that cause ionosphere variability, energetic particle events and geophysical events.

Our sun is the dominant source of space weather affecting the earth. The sun appears unchanging in the sky, yet the sun is quite dynamic, changing by the day and even by the minute. The sun produces an outflow of energy called the solar wind. The solar wind moves at an average of 400 km/s and is made up of charged particles (protons and electrons). It is the solar wind that gives comets their contrails. The solar wind also distorts the earth's protective magnetic field, compressing it on the sun side and elongating it on the night side.

Solar Storms

A flare is a type of solar storm. A solar flare is a sudden outburst of energy that sends radiation and charged particles toward the earth at nearly the speed of light. The radiation from a solar flare can affect short-wave radio communications and can warm the upper atmosphere and create an increased atmospheric drag on satellites. Flares also send clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms into space that can reach Earth within a day or two of the event.

Solar flares are frequently followed by Coronal Mass Ejections (CME). A CME is a huge burst of stellar material from the surface of the sun traveling at an average of almost 500 km/s, that can cause strong aurorae, disrupt radio transmissions, and damage satellite and electrical transmission line facilities; possibly resulting in long lasting power outages.

The Sun

While the earth's magnetic field protects us from the lethal rays of the sun, solar storms can buffet this protective shield creating weak points or compressing it on the day side of the earth so much that satellites become fully exposed to the sun's energy. The magnetic field also funnels some of this solar energy along field lines, directly to the earth's magnetic poles creating high latitude communication and navigation problems as well as radiation concerns.

For more information on the Sun and space weather visit: A Primer on Space Weather from the NWS Space Weather Prediction Center

For more information on the effects that space weather can have on earth systems visit: Effects of Space Weather Storms Part 1 from the NWS Space Weather Prediction Center & Part 2

NWS Space Weather Prediction Center- Education Page


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