In case you missed it, NASA heliophysicist Yari Collado-Vega (pictured above) took the keys to our Instagram account this week and she’s posting cool space weather photos all week long!
What’s space weather?
It’s what happens when the sun’s space environment interacts with Earth’s and creates effects that we can sometimes feel here on Earth.
Head on over to our Instagram or check out the recap below to get the full lowdown on how space weather works, what it looks like, and how it can affect us here on Earth.
Hi! I’m Dr. Yaireska Collado-Vega (I usually go by Yari) a @NASA scientist, and I am taking over @FEMA’s Instagram this week to talk about space weather. Space weather is what we call the interactions between the sun and Earth's space environment (very different from Earth's weather with its sunny days or hurricanes). Sometimes, extreme space weather can affect our technology on Earth, which is why emergency management agencies like FEMA are tuned into space weather forecasts 24/7. This picture is me looking at some of the images of the sun our satellites have collected from space. Space weather begins at the sun with things like extreme solar flares and huge eruptions of solar material called coronal mass ejections that can cause emissions of fast moving particles called solar energetic particles. These particles have different technological effects at Earth – like interfering with GPS or radio communications. I'll be talking more about that all week – but rest assured that radiation from these eruptions is blocked by Earth's atmosphere, so humans on the ground can't be hurt. Here at @NASAGoddard, we test and validate models for space weather that try to show how events at the sun may affect Earth. To make our models better, we check our simulations against what actually happens and improve them. We work closely with our friends over at @NOAA who are in charge of providing all of the space weather forecasts, alerts and warnings for the nation. They use the most robust models to monitor space weather and warn people when technology might be affected. I’ll be back later today with more info about space weather! #YariFEMATakeover NASA Heliophysics isn’t on Instagram, but you can follow us on Twitter @ NASASunEarth
Yari from @NASA here again, talking more about space weather! Solar flares are one type of event that can cause space weather. A solar flare is a huge, hot release of light and energy that happens when magnetic field lines on the sun reconnect. This is an image of a solar flare captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. It shows a solar flare in three wavelengths of light: visible, 171 angstroms, and 304 angstroms (an angstrom is roughly the diameter of an atom and it’s the measurement we use to define the size of light waves). Each wavelength shows a different temperature of material, so by looking at many different wavelengths, we get a better idea of exactly what's going on during a flare. Solar flares travel at the speed of light, so by the time we see them all that light and energy have made it to Earth and are beginning to cause space weather effects. The main thing flares can do is interrupt radio communications near Earth for as long as they're happening. Solar flares release a lot of energy - for some flares, the energy would be enough to power New York City for years if we could collect it! After we see a huge flare, we'll go back over the data to compare it to our models and to help us better understand what produces them. #YariFEMATakeover
Hi it’s Yari from NASA again! Another thing we watch when it comes to space weather are coronal mass ejections like the one in this picture, which was captured by the joint European Space Agency/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. Coronal mass ejections are different from solar flares, though sometimes they happen at the same time. While solar flares are made up only of light and energetic particles (like protons and electrons), coronal mass ejections are clouds of gaseous solar material and magnetic fields. Both coronal mass ejections and flares tend to come from regions on the sun that are very magnetically active (meaning that the magnetic fields shift and change a lot in those areas). To get an idea of how huge coronal mass ejections can be: do you see the white circle inside the blue disk? That white circle is outlining the sun. A million Earths could fit inside the sun, so imagine how many could fit in that one cloud of gas!
Hi, it’s Yari from NASA continuing my space weather takeover! Sunspots are the cradle for a lot of the solar behavior that affects us here on Earth. They are one of the only solar features that can be seen in visible light – though of course you can still only see them with special telescopes or eclipse glasses, because you should never look at the sun directly. Sunspots are the most magnetically active regions on the sun, and they tend to be complex regions too. It's these beds of roiling solar material and magnetism that can lead to the giant explosions we here at NASA see as flares and coronal mass ejections. One of the things space weather scientists like me are still working on is figuring out the exact conditions that set off these explosions. #YariFEMATakeover
Hi, it’s Yari again! If you saw the video we posted here earlier today, you already know that space weather hitting Earth can really distort our magnetosphere. What you might not know, is that this distortion is responsible for one of the most beautiful natural phenomena we have -- the aurora! (Also known as the Northern or Southern lights. Aurora form when energetic particles flow down magnetic field lines of the magnetosphere and strike air particles in the atmosphere. Normally, aurora are seen close to the poles, since that’s where Earth's magnetic field lines touch down. But during a geomagnetic storm, the aurora can sometimes be seen closer to the equator. I was born in Puerto Rico and the aurora was even seen there in 1859 during one of the biggest space weather events ever recorded, called the Carrington Event. In addition to aurora, that event also caused telegraphs to spontaneously send messages due to the electric currents being induced in the ground! #YariFEMATakeover
Hey guys, it’s Yari from @NASA with my final #takeover post! This week we’ve talked about what causes space weather and what happens when it gets to Earth. Now let’s talk about what the realistic effects are for us humans. Most importantly, unless you’re an astronaut on a spacewalk, you won’t be in danger from radiation from a #spaceweather (and don’t worry, we take steps to make sure our astronauts won’t be caught outside during extreme space weather). Our atmosphere and magnetosphere protect us from direct space weather effects on the ground. Satellites in space, however, can be battered by that radiation and so they're specially built to withstand it. In addition, satellites can be put into safe mode when they know that space weather is expected.
Yari also shared a video depicting a coronal mass ejection with the following caption:
"Hi, it’s Yari from NASA again! We've talked about a few different things the sun can throw our way, but what happens when those things actually get to Earth? This video shows a model of what happens when coronal mass ejections (and all the magnetic fields they carry) reach near-Earth space.
We're going to get into some detailed physics here, but stick with me! Earth is the sphere in the center of the picture. A lot of people think of the space around Earth as being completely empty, but that's not exactly true. There are some particles out there and Earth is also surrounded by a giant magnetic bubble, called the magnetosphere. The lines around Earth represent the magnetic fields that point from south to north. The vertical lines on the left represent the magnetic fields coming off the sun, moving toward Earth.
Sometimes the two sets of magnetic fields interact and not much happens. But when a coronal mass ejection is moving fast and its magnetic field lines are pointing north to south (in the opposite direction of Earth's) the collision can be intense. For one thing, the connected magnetic field lines can allow particles from the sun to funnel into our space. These particles provide radiation that can batter our satellites or even trip up electronics onboard the satellite. Second, the coronal mass ejection’s magnetic fields can set off oscillations in Earth's magnetosphere, which we call a geomagnetic storm.
Extreme geomagnetic storms can set off unexpected electric currents in utility grids on Earth, which can impact or harm the transformers. This has happened only a few times in our history, including during a geomagnetic storm in 1989 that caused the utility grid in Quebec, Canada, to shut down for nine hours.
One of the reasons we work to better understand what causes geomagnetic storms is so that space weather forecasters at NOAA can give power utilities and emergency management agencies enough advance notice to anticipate the impacts and protect their grids. At NASA, our space weather analysts also send notifications to our missions to protect our technology in space. #YariFEMATakeover"
You can follow NASA heliophysics on Twitter: @NASASunEarth and learn more about space weather.