Solar Storm Heading Toward Earth

Skywatchers should be on alert for possible geomagnetic storms this week that may trigger colorful displays of auroras.

Today on April 11th at 7:16 UT (3:16 am ET) a large, Earth- facing group of sunspots hurled a massive cloud of plasma and charged particles into space. Heading towards our planet at high speed, the Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) was first spotted by NASA’s sun-monitoring satellite , the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and is expected to slam into Earth’s protective magnetic field sometime in the early morning hours of April 13th.

According to Spaceweather.com,  the front of the storm is already being felt  in the form of space radiation (energized protons) speeding by Earth. The high influx of charged particles buffeting the magnetic field can potentially pose a hazard to everything from GPS signals, polar radio communications, power grids  and circuit boards on orbiting satellites.

NASA's  Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) captured this movie of a large solar blast emerging from the Sun's surface on April 11, 2013. The fast moving CME cloud is seen passing in front of Mars and brighter Venus on the left side of the frame.  Credit: NASA/SOHO
NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) captured this movie of a large solar blast emerging from the Sun’s surface on April 11, 2013. The fast moving CME cloud is seen passing in front of Mars and brighter Venus on the left side of the frame. Credit: NASA/SOHO

 

So far indications are that this current bout of space radiation is classified as a minor one– only causing disruption to high-frequency radio chatter in the polar regions.

Of course what everyone wants to know is if they will see any light show in the sky. That will depend on the strength of the storm and the orientation of Earth’s dynamic magnetic field when it is expected to hit on the 13th.  Skywatchers, especially in high latitudes, should be on alert for possible northern lights. (see also: Pictures: Auroras of February and March)

Best time to try and capture pictures of auroras  in general  is to head outside between local midnight and pre-dawn hours. Face the northern sky and look for green or red glows emanating from near the horizon.  In terms of equipment and technique, all you need to have is a tripod mounted DSLR camera with a wide angle lens, capable of taking exposures of up to 20 seconds with a remote timer. (Related:  Did You Hear the Northern Lights?).

We are heading towards the peak activity time in the Sun’s 11 year cycle, called solar maximum, over the course of the next few months so there may be many opportunities to catch sight of northern lights. It’s important to remember however that we are still in the very early stages of being able to predict precisely when auroral displays will occur, and their potential intensity.  But with some patience and luck we might be in for a decent cosmic light show this week.

Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.