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'Stargazing' by David Abbou
The Solar Dynamics Observatory captured a beautiful prominence eruption shot off the left side of the sun.
Solar Dynamics Observatory/NASA
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DECEMBER 2012 came and went, and with it went the unfounded predictions for huge solar storms ending life on Earth. While killer solar storms are highly unlikely, we must monitor the sun very closely as its incredible power can impact our world in other ways.
A solar storm is an electromagnetic burst from the sun that sends charged particles towards Earth. If the storm is strong enough, the charged particles can damage electrical grids, communications systems, and GPS, weather and communications satellites. We learned this could occur in 1989 when a strong solar storm knocked out electricity in Quebec causing millions of people to lose power. Solar storms this strong are rare but they do occur, so keeping a sharp eye on the sun is necessary as we continually grow more dependent upon technology to conduct our lives.
We know that the sun goes through a normal 11-year cycle where solar activity increases and decreases, and we are heading for a solar maximum later this year, meaning sunspots, flares and other solar disturbances are increasing. While we are aware that solar activity is rising, predicting individual solar storms weeks or months in advance is impossible with current technology. Luckily, we have NASA's incredible Solar Dynamics Observatory keeping an eye on our closest star.
SDO is providing a much better understanding of the sun's internal and external functions to help us better prepare for the next solar outburst. SDO has already provided valuable data by detecting areas beneath the sun's surface which appear as sunspots several days later. This type of information is enabling astronomers to understand solar storm formation and the eventual impacts upon our small planet.
The amount of data SDO sends to Earth daily is the equivalent of downloading a half-million songs. Cameras on SDO take photos of the sun every three-fourths of a second, and these images are 10 times sharper than your high-definition TV set.
Understanding the sun's behavior is more critical now than ever before, and SDO is the mission up to the astronomical task of closing the solar knowledge gap. Follow SDO on the Internet: sdo.gsfc.nasa.gov.
The easiest planets to find this month are the two largest gas giant planets: Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter