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The Sun Kingsr

How Modern Astronomy Began

Stuart Clark

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Huge electrical storm 1859 disrupted telegraph services until operators realised they could disconnect from the batteries they usually used for power, and just work off the phantom current that was showing up as a bright aurora.

Halloween flares of 2003 - for first time, astronomers had instruments off the Earth. The cloud of charged gas swept across the Earth 29 Oct 2003. It then reached Mars, which NASA's Mars Odyssey was orbiting. It's radiation monitor overloaded and burned out, but other instruments saw the wave contort Mars atmosphere, eventually ripping out and carrying aawy a large chunk.

Then struck Jupiter, sparking auroras there and a massive electrical storm that blasted radio waves into space for the next week. The Cassini spacecraft recorded a similar magnetic event as it approached Saturn, ten times further than the sun and in another direction again from Earth.

In April 2004, the gas clouds caught up with the aging Voyager 2 spacecraft, 7 billion miles from Earth.

The outer atmosphere of the Sun is made of gas at millions of degrees celcius. The temperature strips electrons from their atoms, leaving a seething mass of varying electricity and magnetism that is continually blown into space in all directions. This outward flow is the solar wind. As well as this continual wnd, we get solar flares, which are huge eruptions of charged particles - a coronial mass ejection to use tech term.

Sunspots form when the Sun creates a tightly squeezed loop of magnetism that burst through the solar surface. At the bottom of the loop, magnetism is cooling the gas, rendering it darker than the hotter surrounding gas.

The energy releases as a solar flare. It takes just 8 minutes for the light, including xrays, to cross the 93 million miles to Earth. In its wake is a vast cloud of charged particles - the coronial mass ejection - travelling much slower than the light and xrays, at a mere 1500 miles per second, it strikes the Earth 17.5 hourslater. This is the collision that generates the auroras, the magnetic storms and the surges of current through the powe grid and communications systems.

The first hugeflare and magnetic storm captured by modern instruments happened in August 1972 as the Apollo program was winding down. NASA was preparing to launch Apollo 17, the last Moon shot. The storm lasted 15.5 hours. If astronauts had been on the Moon or in flight, they would have received a fatal dose of radiation within the first 10 hours of the storm.

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