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Solar Storms could create Chaos in 2010

8.12.09 - So called solar storms created by the sun can cause chaos on Earth. Experts predict the next big storm in 2010.

The United States are already alarmed however Europe does not have an emergency plan yet.
Volker Bothmer from Germany, who has been studying the sun for over 20 years, consults the European Space Agency (ESA) in all matters related to space weather.

The last solar storm that he observed was in 2003 and had significant impacts on life in Europe. A power outage caused by the storm left 50,000 people in Sweden without electricity. Navigation systems of several airplanes stopped working as well since the storm messed up the signals of the GPS satellites that are used by the navigation systems on board of airplanes for an automated landing.

The next storm will have far more dramatic impacts believe Volker Bothmer and other researchers. And it might come soon. The storms seem to follow a certain cycle. Approximately every 11 years astronomers notice an increase in the sun's activity. The next increase is expected in 2012. However: "The next maximum does not create the storm but two years before and after is when they get created." says Bothmer. "It is like boiling water: The biggest bubbles get created before the water boils."

In the current information age, where the world relies much more on wireless signals and electricity than years before, a storm could have significant impacts. A recent report published by the National Academy of Sciences (NSA) in the USA described the impacts in a way that it almost sounds like the book to a science fiction movie.

The Earth is not surrounded by totally empty space, but, like the other planets of the solar system, it is continuously embedded in a stream of ionised particles, the so called solar wind, emanating from the Sun's hot outer atmosphere. At a distance of about 150 Million Kilometers from the Sun, this supersonic plasma flow permanently blows past the outer terrestrial magnetic field. The solar wind compresses the Earth's magnetic field at the dayside magnetosphere and stretches it out deeply into interplanetary space at the nightside. With respect to the Earth's magnetosphere, the solar wind induces a conductive electric field. This electric field changes in magnitude when the parameters of the solar wind change due to variations of the solar magnetic field.

An eruption on the sun catapults electrons and protons against the Earth's atmosphere.

It is also well known that it is not simply the enhanced electric field magnitude that enhances the energy transfers into the magnetosphere, but that the direction of the interplanetary magnetic field is of crucial importance.

When the interplanetary magnetic field, which is carried out from the Sun by the solar wind, is directed anti-parallel to the Earth's dayside field, efficient magnetic coupling is stimulated. In situ measurements of the solar wind, by satellites that left the Earth's magnetosphere during parts of its' orbits, have provided direct evidence that this plasma flow is not homogenous, but that it can change from a mild breeze to a hurricane rapidly.

With a solar storm also comes the phenomenon of aurora which is an interaction between the Earth's magnetic field and solar wind.

Auroras are produced by the collision of charged particles from Earth's magnetosphere, mostly electrons but also protons and heavier particles, with atoms and molecules of Earth's upper atmosphere (at altitudes above 50 miles). The particles originate from the Sun and arrive at the vicinity of Earth in the relatively low-energy solar wind.

The collisions in the atmosphere electrically excite electrons to take quantum leaps - a mechanism in which the electron's kinetic energy is converted to visible light; and molecules in the upper atmosphere. The excitation energy can be lost by light emission or collisions. Most auroras are green and red emissions from atomic oxygen. Molecular nitrogen and nitrogen ions produce some low level red (pink) and very high blue/violet auroras. The light blue and green colors are produced by ionic nitrogen and the neutral helium gives off the purple color whereas neon is responsible for the rare orange flares with the rippled edges. Different gasses interacting with the upper atmosphere will produce different colors, caused by the different compounds of oxygen and nitrogen. The level of solar wind activity from the Sun can also influence the color and intensity of the auroras.


The two Nasa satellites that are part of the "STEREO"-Mission have been in space for 3 years. Volker Bothmer is part of this project. STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) is the third mission in NASA's Solar Terrestrial Probes program (STP). This mission provides a unique and revolutionary view of the Sun-Earth System. The two nearly identical observatories - one ahead of Earth in its orbit, the other trailing behind - traces the flow of energy and matter from the Sun to Earth as well as reveals the 3D structure of coronal mass ejections and help us understand why they happen. STEREO also provides alerts for Earth-directed solar ejections, from its unique side-viewing perspective adding it to the fleet of Space Weather detection satellites.

To learn more about space take our science class on Space Exploration.

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