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The Breathtaking Power And Beauty Of The Sun

The science, destruction, and beauty of the solar storm that’s been blasting earth—from the breathtaking Aurora Borealis to future exploration of the sun itself.

In this photo taken Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, the skies over the frozen Susitna River near Talkeetna, Alaska are lit up by a display of the northern lights, or Aurora Borealis.  A common occurrence in northern climates, the aurora was enhanced in this display by solar flares in the days preceding the event.  (AP)

In this photo taken Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, the skies over the frozen Susitna River near Talkeetna, Alaska are lit up by a display of the northern lights, or Aurora Borealis. A common occurrence in northern climates, the aurora was enhanced in this display by solar flares in the days preceding the event. (AP)

We know our sun is vast and blazing.  But sometimes it’s blazing more aggressively than others.  Positively storming.  Last week, the largest solar storm in almost a decade boomed out with a wave of cosmic energy across the 93 million miles to Earth.  And we got hit.

Superheated gas hurling waves of particles off the sun.  Slamming Earth’s magnetic field.  Threatening power grids, orbiting satellites, GPS signals, airline flights, radio communications.  And making some amazing Northern Lights.

This hour, On Point:  Heading into storm season on the sun.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Justin Kasper, astrophysicist in the Solar and Stellar X-Ray Group in the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. His latest project is leading the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas And Protons (SWEAP) investigation on the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft.

Howard Singer, chief scientist at NOAA’s Space Weather and Prediction Center.

Frank Koza, executive director of operations support at PJM Interconnection, which is a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of electricity in 13 states.

Chad Blakley, aurora borealis photographer, who runs the website Lights Over Lapland.

Photos

Astrophysicist Justin Kasper outside the On Point studios at WBUR in Boston. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Astrophysicist Justin Kasper outside the On Point studios at WBUR in Boston. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

From Tom’s Reading List

NASA “The sun erupted late on January 22, 2012 with an M8.7 class flare, an earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME), and a burst of fast moving, highly energetic protons known as a “solar energetic particle” event. The latter has caused the strongest solar radiation storm since September 2005 according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.”

NPR “It begins on the sun’s surface: a broad, hellish plain of boiling 5,700 degree gas. Powerful magnetic fields arc upwards from the surface, rising high into the solar atmosphere to form giant, twisting arcades of energy. Matter streams up these arches to be gripped in a magnetic vise a million miles above the surface. Then something happens. Something shifts. Magnetic lines of force in the arcade snap like steel cables on the bridge to heaven. Billions of tons of solar gas are suddenly blown outward, exploding across interplanetary space. Three days later the shimmering ball of energy smashes head-on into the unsuspecting Earth.”

Discovery News “As the sun increases in activity toward “solar maximum” (predicted to occur in 2013), we can expect more intense solar storms over the coming months. Magnetic activity is bursting through the solar “surface” (the photosphere), producing a rash of sunspots. This in turn has resulted in explosive events — solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — boosting the intensity of radiation environment surrounding our planet.”

Video: Lights of Lapland

Here’s some video of the recent Northern Lights display over the Abisko National Park in Sweden.

Video: NASA Photographs Solar Storms

In this video, shot on January 22, 2012, shows a portion of the sun erupting and blasting into space.

Video: The Sun Song

This video, uploaded to YouTube by NASA, features the Chromatics, a group of astrophysicist a capella singers from the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Playlist

“Why Does the Sun Shine?” by They Might Be Giants

“The Sun Song” by The Chromatics

“Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles

 

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