Science & Tech

Scientists predict calmer weather ahead

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Observations are leading to better long-term predictions of how the Sun will affect spacecraft and life on Earth

When the Sun is more active, it has bad effects on our planet. For instance, energy from solar eruptions changes the orbits of satellites, causing them to spiral back to the Earth. Solar eruptions perturb the Earth’s magnetic field, causing communications disruptions, especially to cell phone and other wireless devices. Magnetic storms also cause current surges in power lines that destroy equipment and knock out power over large areas. Now, a new instrument called the Ultraviolet Coronagraph Spectrometer, or UVCS, is allowing first-of-a-kind observations by astronomers. The observations are providing the best descriptions yet of the workings of the Sun from its core to its surface. Recent observations have convinced astronomers that calmer weather is ahead in space. Such observations also are leading the way to better long-term predictions of how and when the Sun’s gusty particle emissions will affect spacecraft and life on Earth. Improved predictions are expected after next-generation instruments come on line later in the decade. “We need these better predictions as we become more dependent upon satellites and reliable long-distance communications,” says Mari Paz Miralles of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.