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Working To Keep Solar Flares From Affecting Earth: Georgia State Opens South Pole Solar Observatory

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Stuart Jefferies, professor of astronomy, sits next to a new instrument
at the South Pole Solar Observatory used to measure the sun’s activity.

Weather isn’t confined to the clouds of Earth.

What goes on with our erupting sun – unleashing plasma, magnetic disruptions and radiation – is part of what’s called space weather.

And just as tornadoes on Earth can destroy property, solar flares – sudden bursts of radiation – and other space weather phenomena have the potential to zap our power grids and satellites, infrastructure vital to our electronics-dependent society.

Georgia State University is heading the start of the South Pole Solar Observatory to understand more about the sun, providing us with more data to understand what could trigger space weather events.

Stuart Jefferies, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is leading the multi-institutional team at the observatory, installing and operating instruments to record high-resolution images of the sun.

The project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Solar Programs, started in December 2016 about 2 ½ miles away from the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica.

The two instruments being installed there will log the high-resolution images of the sun every five seconds at two different heights in the Earth’s atmosphere.

There are three goals to the project:

  • Measure and characterize the internal gravity waves of the sun’s atmosphere;
  • Identify the role of those waves in transporting energy and momentum;
  • Use the properties of these waves to provide a mapping of the structure and dynamics of the sun’s atmosphere.

By pursuing these goals, scientists will be better able to understand what triggers space weather events, including solar flares, as well as something called coronal mass ejections – bursts of plasma and magnetic field structures.

Just as with weather on Earth, scientists have long sought to better predict space weather in order to minimize its impact.

Space weather events have had major impacts on Earth before. The strongest geomagnetic storm on record happened in 1859, before the widespread use of electric power but during the age of telegraphs as the primary method of long-distance communication.

The 1859 event electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting telegraph papers on fire.

Another space weather event occurred in 1989, which set off a major power blackout in Canada, leaving six million people without power for nine hours.

The project with Georgia State and its colleagues at the South Pole will map the sun’s sub-surface structure and dynamics, and investigate the puzzle of why the temperature of the sun’s atmosphere rises substantially from about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit to several million degrees in its atmosphere, called the corona.

The team will consist of scientists from Georgia State, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Rome Tor Vergata, the University of Hawaii and the European Space Agency.

You can learn more about the impacts of space weather at https://www.ready.gov/space-weather, or the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center at http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/.

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