Web-Based Tools For Tracking Solar Activity
As we head into the peak of solar Cycle 24 this summer, I thought it would be a good idea to list some websites that are useful for keeping an eye on what the Sun is up to.
Why care about this? Solar activity is rapidly ramping up and significantly affects the geophysical environment of our planet. Bursts of high-energy particles emitted from solar flares can damage Earth-orbiting satellites, disrupt terrestrial radio communications, interfere with GPS navigation, and even threaten the integrity of electrical power grids.
Here are a summary of some sites and what they have to offer:
☀ Current Solar Data (convenient, one-page summary of plots from NOAA)
☀ Spaceweather (the go-to website for information about current solar activity and space weather forecast information)
☀ SolarSoft ”Latest Events” (a single page, graphical, ‘at-a-glance’ summary of recent solar imagery and activity levels)
☀ SolarHam (lots of graphical information about solar activity mainly pertinent to terrestrial, long-wave radio propagation; of interest to amateur radio operators and others)
☀ Solar Terrestrial Activity Report (oodles of information about current solar activity levels and events in the geomagnetic environment compiled by Jan Alvestad)
☀ Planetary K-Index (a numerical representation of the current level of solar-geomagnetic activity near the Earth; when K ≥ 7, auroral activity at mid-latitudes is likely)
☀ Helioviewer (an interactive tool for visualizing solar activity data, mostly spacecraft imagery)
☀ POES Auroral Oval (a realtime depiction of the “auroral oval” around the Earth’s poles from orbiting satellites; useful for predicting where aurora may be seen on the ground)
☀ The Watchers Solar Activities Archive (blog consisting of short news-style updates about solar goings-on)
This list is by no means exhaustive, but should serve as a good jumping-off point for those interested in tracking the activity of our dynamic Sun.
(Image credit: NASA/Steele Hill)
Magnetic fields on the sun’s northeastern limb erupted around 17:45 UT on April 16th, producing one of the most visually-spectacular explosions in years. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) recorded the blast at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths (above). Gas heated to nearly a million degrees was blown off the solar surface, following the twisted loops of the Sun’s invisible magnetic field lines. This happened near the limb, or edge, of the Sun; luckily this means the Earth was shielded from the bulk of the harmful radiation emitted in the event. On the other hand, it also means it’s unlikely we will see any auroral activity in the next few days as a result.
Space weather in our solar system has been rather unsettled of late, and some of our tenacious robotic interplanetary explorers have been feeling the impact of the sun’s temper tantrums. The European Space Agency’s Venus Express orbiter suffered a particularly nasty solar sucker-punch, temporarily blinding one of its navigational systems.
The solar radiation hit Venus’ orbit on March 7 (Tuesday) after the sun had belched out a series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). This radiation uptick knocked-out Venus Express’ startracker cameras (including the backup camera), causing them to lose sight of stars the spacecraft uses to orient itself.
Waiting For The CME To Arrive
“Active sunspot 1401 erupted on Jan. 19th around 16:30 UT, producing an M3-class solar flare and a full-halo coronal mass ejection (CME). The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory recorded the cloud expanding almost directly toward Earth.” (animated image, above)
“Analysts at the Goddard Space Weather Lab say strong geomagnetic storms are possible when the cloud arrives this weekend. Their animated forecast track predicts an impact on Jan. 21st at 22:30 UT (+/- 7 hrs).”
“The cloud is also heading for Mars, due to hit the Red Planet on Jan. 24th. NASA’s Curiosity rover, en route to Mars now, is equipped to study solar storms and might be able to detect a change in the energetic particle environment when the CME passes by.”
A huge sunspot unleashed a blob of charged plasma Thursday that space weather watchers predict will blast past the Earth on Sunday. Satellite operators and power companies are keeping a close eye on the incoming cloud, which could distort the Earth’s magnetic field and disrupt radio communications, especially at higher latitudes.
“Our simulations show potential to pack a good punch to Earth’s near-space environment,” said Antti Pulkkinen of the Space Weather Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
But, he added, “We’re not looking at an extreme event here.” (WaPo)