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Science Column: Rise and Shine
April 4, 2012
By Suzanne Smith
As anyone who has taken Dr. Richard Erickson’s intro to astronomy class can tell you, the sun goes through an 11-year cycle. Solar activity, flares, prominences, sunspots etc., peaks every 11 years then dips into a lull.
This year the Earth is coming out of one of the most prolonged minimums in recent years. As the sun becomes more active, it is impacted more by the coronal mass ejections, CMEs. It is the CMEs that cause the aurora, Northern and Southern Lights.
A key NASA instrument that can directly measure the impact of solar events on the Earth’s upper atmosphere has weighed in on the huge flare that impacted Earth during spring break. The flare was considered one of the largest solar events in years even though its impact on the power grid and communications was minimal due to the angle it hit the Earth.
Its direct interaction with the upper atmosphere was measured by NASA’s SABER, Sounding of the Atmosphere using Broadband Emission Radiometry, instrument orbiting on the TIMED, Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere, Energetics and Dynamics, satellite.
The upper atmosphere heated up, and huge spikes occurred in infrared emission from nitric oxide and carbon dioxide.
It has been seven years since a storm like this one. This is the first major storm event since the deep minimum of 2008-2009. The sun is waking up as it proceeds to the next solar maximum, predicted to occur early next year. As the sun becomes more active it emits more ultraviolet radiation and produces more solar flares.
SABER is one of four instruments on the TIMED spacecraft launched in December 2001. TIMED studies the Earth’s mesosphere and lower thermosphere, the least explored and least understood region of the atmosphere. SABER continuously takes data, including observations of climate and energy balance of the Earth’s upper and outer atmosphere.
Since 2001, SABER has taken data during the end of the last solar max, through the solar minimum, and will now play an important role in the studies of the upcoming maximum. SABER was only designed to operate for two years, but here we are 11 years later and it continues to work flawlessly.
Partners in the SABER mission include Hampton University in Hampton, Va., Science Systems and Applications, Inc., GATS Inc., NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory built SABER.