Solar Orbiter captures coronal mass ejection

The Solar Orbiter has captured its first coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun, as Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology pushes for better space-weather watching capabilities.

NASA and the European Space Agency launched the orbiter to observe the solar winds and solar cycle, and it has just sent back the first grainy images of the CME, when a big burst of magma erupted from the Sun’s surface. The resulting magnetic field can wreak havoc on Earth.

NASA was quick to allay fears, saying CMEs are only a problem if they are aimed directly at us.

The first coronal mass ejection observed by the Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager (SoloHI) appears as a sudden gust of white (the dense front from the CME) that expands into the solar wind. This video uses difference images, created by subtracting the pixels of the previous image from the current image to highlight changes. The missing spot in the image on the far right is an overexposed area where light from the spacecraft solar array is reflected into SoloHI’s view. The little black and white boxes that blip into view are telemetry blocks – an artifact from compressing the image and sending it back down to Earth. Credits: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/SoloHI team/NRL

The BOM has warned that space weather including solar flares, particle radiation and CMEs can mess with GPS systems and radio communications. Space weather can also “damage satellites and the electricity transmission network and affect aviation and air passenger safety,” it says.

BOM representatives have told the ongoing federal inquiry into the space industry that the bureau already manages a space weather observation network, but has no sovereign satellite weather observing capability.

The bureau’s Peter Stone said “solar wind and solar flares that emanate from the Sun can be dangerous to human health, and they’re a threat to communications and a lot of technological systems”.

“For example, space weather can interrupt high-frequency radio; damage power grids; threaten satellite communications and instruments including things like avionics, the equipment in planes; and reduce the working life of satellites, particularly those in a low orbit.”

He says the bureau monitors as far ahead as it can so evasive action can be taken, such as moving a satellite or preparing the electricity grid for impact.

Stone says any capability Australia develops will not be truly sovereign, because of the need to share data globally. But there is an opportunity to “reduce the risk” to Australia by reducing how dependent we are on other countries. That could mean putting sensors on other satellites or providing coverage where there are existing gaps.

The first CME witnessed by Solar Orbiter’s Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager, as seen from NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory-A spacecraft. Credits: NASA/STEREO/COR2

The Solar Orbiter is just one of a fleet of spacecraft observing the Sun as it enters a new, stormier period. A new cycle has just begun – it will last for about 11 years and solar activity will peak in 2025.

According to the BOM, this cycle will be relatively quiet but during the last cycle – also considered to be quiet – there was a CME that could have plunged the world into darkness.

On a brighter note, solar activity also delivers the spectacular auroras – you can monitor the Sun’s work and resulting light show here.

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