A satellite that can warn us about solar storms

The ACE satellite, floating 1.5 mn km above the Earth, can warn us up to an hour before a large-magnitude solar storm.

Washington: The Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE satellite, floating 1.5 million km above the Earth, can warn us up to an hour before a large-magnitude solar storm or coronal mass ejection (CME) strikes our technology-dependent world, says a researcher.

"The ACE is our early-warning system," says C. Alex Young, study co-author and solar astrophysicist and associate director of science for the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA`s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Madison.

"Depending on the speed of a CME, the ACE satellite can provide 20-60 minutes of warning before impact, enough to allow spacewalking astronauts to return to the relative safety of their spacecraft or to warn power grid operators that their systems may soon be overloaded," adds Young, according to a NASA statement.

The largest ever solar storm, known as the Carrington Event, disrupted the telegraph system in 1859. Today, a CME of that magnitude could cause a widespread breakdown of our technologies.

CMEs occur when the sun`s magnetic field becomes so entangled that it "snaps", releasing an enormous amount of energy. An array of satellites and ground-based observatories stare at the sun 24 hours a day, monitoring the skies for such events.

Researchers at the Purdue University are working on a way to predict solar activity half a day before it happens -- not by monitoring the sun, but by observing something on earth: the rate at which radioactive elements decay.