By Sarah Kaplan and Ben Guarino
It was dark on Earth when NASA's Parker Solar Probe started their journey to an endless day. The first spacecraft to be hit by a star flew from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Sunday morning at 3:31. A roaring Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the probe out of the earth's atmosphere. Next stop: A loop past Venus to meet the sun.
The source of all light and life on Earth is also the source of one of its greatest natural threats: space weather. The sun's atmosphere regularly erupts with rapid proton flashes and explosions of high-energy particles that can hit the earth within minutes, interrupting wireless communication, disrupting GPS, and frying the power grid. A "worst-case scenario" of space weather events could do more harm than hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Sandy combined.
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"It sounds like science fiction," said meteorologist William Murtagh of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who heads the Space Weather Prediction Center. "But it is something that is not only possible, but is very likely to happen in the not-too-distant future."
Scientists have long struggled to understand and predict space weather events because the wild environment around the sun makes it difficult to witness when they form.
Murtagh and many other researchers watched as the newest NASA spaceship launched a mission to bring it closer to the sun than any human-made object.
The probe is the culmination of a half-century to understand our star, Murtagh says, and it can help prepare us for the dangers the sun might cause us in the future.
Part of the sun broke out on September 1, 1859. The English astronomer Richard Carrington noticed a bright white solar flare on the sun, brighter than the sunspots he normally observed. About a day later, a charge of charged particles known as Coronal Mass Ejection or CME arrived on Earth, pushing the planet's magnetic bubble. People as far south as Cuba saw the sky shine with Auroras. Geomagnetic currents sent power surges through copper telegraph wires, zapping operators, and setting fire to telegraph paper.
If a similar event happened today, it would bring life to a standstill.
The energetic particles within a coronal mass ejection can penetrate the walls of spacecraft and pose a radiation hazard to astronauts and the technology on which they depend. They can interfere with satellites, disrupt radio communication and GPS. And when a CME hits the magnetosphere of our planet at right angles, it can create strong electric waves within the Earth. These can then penetrate utility grids and emit transformers that provide power – as a circuit encounters on a large scale.
The sun exploded again in July 2012, spitting material at nearly 6 million miles per hour towards Earth. This time, the coronal mass ejection hit a NASA spacecraft called STEREO-A at full throttle. The spacecraft's sensors were stressed, but they were still able to measure solar particles, solar wind gusts, and the strength of the interplanetary magnetic field.
One year after the explosion, astrophysicists examined the STEREO A data in an article published in the journal Space Weather to answer a worst-case question. "What if this coronal mass ejection had occurred 10 days earlier, when Earth was in the firing line?" Said Daniel Baker, professor of planetary and space physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and one of the authors of the study.
Her conclusion: If it had hit the earth, Baker and his colleagues would have written that there was a "very legitimate question as to whether our society would still pick up the pieces."
In 2008, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reported on the economic and societal impact of space weather with a worst case estimate of an extreme geomagnetic storm: it could cost up to $ 2 trillion in the first year, and Recovery would take four to 10 years.
Space weather science is said to be about 50 years behind terrestrial weather forecasting. Meteorologists know what conditions cause hurricanes, and they can spot the seeds of a storm that forms over the ocean long before landing.
But the warning times for space weather events are often measured in minutes, Murtagh said, and there is too much we do not know.
"There is a lack of understanding," Murtagh said. "It's science, it's the knowledge of the sun and the physical processes that these energetic particles can produce, we do not fully understand science yet."
Much of our modern understanding of the sun comes from 91-year-old Eugene Parker, for whom NASA's new probe was named.
In the mid-1950s, Parker discovered a connection between two seemingly unrelated space secrets. First, the corona or the sun's atmosphere is more bizarre than its surface – scientists compare the sun to a campfire that feels hotter the farther you are from the flames. And secondly, the dusty tails of comets always point away from the sun as if they were blown up by a strong wind.
Parker realized that the corona is not a static halo, but a stream of material from the sun itself. It begins slowly and densely and zooms in as it escapes the gravitational pull of the sun and eventually exceeds the speed of sound. The pointed tails of comets behave like windsocks caught in the solar wind.
The acceleration of the particles in the solar wind remains one of the "fundamental secrets of the sun," said Nicola Fox, a heliophysicist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and a project scientist for Parker Solar Probe. And it's one of the keys to understanding CMEs – the explosions that pose so much danger to life on Earth.
After the National Academies released their sobering 2008 report, "awareness of this risk has become clear in the government and in the public," said a Federal Emergency Management Agency official who spoke about the condition of anonymity.
Trillion dollar space storms are a rare problem that attracts Republicans and Democrats alike. The Obama Administration's Executive Decree 13744 created a national space weather policy in 2016. FEMA has recently completed a federal space-weather operation plan, which was sent to the Trump administration for approval. Congress is also considering legislation that will channel funds to develop a space weather plan.
The issue is especially pertinent to the East Coast of the United States between Washington and Maine, not only because of the region's extensive electrical infrastructure. The 300 million year old igneous rocks on which the east coast is located do not conduct electricity well. When a stream hits this rock, it will seek an easier path – like metal pipes, telephone wires and electrical cables. Finally, the current can hit the high-voltage transformers, the backbone of the grid, and overwhelm their magnetic cores.
This is not speculation. It happened in 1989 to a relatively small extent in Canada. At the beginning of March, the sun spit out a gas cloud that interrupted the radio signals. (At first, some observers suspected Soviet, non-solar interference.) Electric currents whirred through the ground and poured into Hydro-Québec power plant. Six million people in Quebec City were out of power for nine hours. As with New Jersey, where electric power in the Salem Nuclear Power Plant has roasted a transformer, the effects of lighting have been felt.
Industry reports indicate that operators would have enough time to close the network before it sustains permanent damage. But others are not so optimistic.
"We will not know until a real event happens, whether that's a true statement or not," said the FEMA official, who added to energy supply engineers, "will not say so publicly," but they've bought replacement transformers wherever they can. The installation of new transformers – which would have to be built abroad – could take a year or two.
That a future solar storm will shake the earth is not a question of when, but when. In 2012, Peter Riley, who published the solar corona at Predictive Science Inc., a San Diego-based company developing computer models for the Sun, published an article in Space Weather that calculated the odds of a Carrington scale repetition. Within the next decade, he concluded, it could be about 12 percent – equivalent to the risk of other 100-year dangers, such as massive flooding.
Over the next seven years, the Parker Solar Probe will head for a series of 24 egg-shaped orbits around the sun that repeatedly sweep past Venus to realign. Each approach approaches the corona at a staggering 450,000 miles per hour – fast enough to get from Washington to New York in about a second. With its dust detectors, particle counters and a telescope that can record 3-D images of the corona, the probe measures the solar and magnetic fields of the sun, shovels particles from the solar wind and observes how shocks from the sun are dissolving through the surface Atmosphere and into space.
"There is no doubt that the probe's measurements and our understanding will have a major impact on our ability to predict space weather," said Christina Cohen, a scientist at the Space Radiation Lab at the California Institute of Technology who studies energetic particles.
It's a project scientists have dreamed about as long as they knew about the solar wind. But it took half a century to develop the necessary technology. When the spacecraft makes its first approach in November, a carbon-composite heat shield protects the minivan-sized Parker Solar Probe from the million-kilometer-wide hot gas ball.
Parker was interviewed on NASA TV shortly after the launch of the probe bearing his name. "All I can say is, wow, here we are," he said. "We will learn something in the next few years."