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There's weather in space as well as our skies

Monday - 2/24/2014, 12:52am  ET

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The Sun is a 4.5 billion-year-old star that we have been monitoring since Galileo. (NASA)

WASHINGTON -- With our terrestrial weather (winter) having been such a factor in our daily lives recently here in the DMV, I thought you might find the following of interest. It certainly provides food for thought in a realm you are probably not familiar with - space weather.

We take for granted our star - the Sun. We know it will be there every new day and count on it for life-giving warmth and energy. We also have become accustomed to it being well-behaved. What many people do not know is that our Sun had an episode of disturbed behavior in 1859 that, if it were to occur today, could have civilization-changing repercussions.

Our Sun is a 4.5 billion-year-old star that we have been monitoring since Galileo. Today we have a fleet of spacecraft that monitor the Sun and space weather, including the side that faces away from Earth, so essentially 24x7x365.

Space weather (I check this site every day just as I do my local weather) has become a true science, with daily predictions of what the weather in the solar system is going to be - which of course depends on the Sun, as does our earthly weather. Storms on the Sun can release tremendous amounts of energy, radiation and particles into the solar system that affect our GPS, communications and electrical grid.

On Sept. 1, 1859, the Sun experienced a solar storm episode that was observed by Richard Carrington, and ended up bearing his name - "the Carrington Event." This was a watershed event in solar astronomy and the Sun's effect on the Earth, as nothing like it has been seen since - thankfully as you will see.

If a Carrington-level solar event were to happen today, the effect on modern society's infrastructure could be potentially catastrophic, especially the electrical grid which fuels everything else. If you think this is unlikely or too sci-fi to be true, I suggest you read the report by the National Academies of Science, published in 2008.

I, for one, am glad that at least we should have a warning thanks to NASA if we get a Carrington-level event or anything that approaches it in intensity. We also have talented and dedicated people working on space weather every single day. Their work is vital to our well-being, just like the work of meteorologists studying tornadoes, storms and terrestrial weather.

Maybe now you will want to start checking on space weather daily as part of your weather routine.

Follow my daily blog to keep up with the latest news in astronomy and space exploration. You can email me at skyguyinva@gmail.com.

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