NASA launched a solar observatory into orbit Thursday. The mission is expected to help better forecast solar storms, which can disrupt communications on Earth.
Scientists and space-weather forecasters have a new ally in their quest to understand and forecast solar storms – events that can disrupt radio communications on Earth, trigger blackouts, and endanger astronauts and satellites in orbit.
At 10:23 a.m. Thursday, NASA launched its Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). It's an $856 million mission that will provide the most comprehensive views yet of the sun – from processes at work deep inside the star to sunspots and explosive outbursts of charged particles and radiation from the sun's surface.
These solar storms can affect planets throughout the solar system, including Earth.
The mission is the first in a series of four projects that make up the space agency's “Living With a Star” research program.
Humans have become increasingly reliant on technologies that are vulnerable to solar storms, observes Madhulika Guhathakurta, an astrophysicist and lead program scientist for the “Living With a Star” effort. Even low-tech infrastructure such as oil or gas pipelines at high latitudes can be affected by electrical currents that are triggered by these storms.
The probe NASA lofted Thursday "will revolutionize our view of the sun," Dr. Guhathakurta said during a recent pre-launch briefing.