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Solar storm less worrisome than NPR might have you think

On my way to work this morning somebody on Morning Edition told me that the largest solar storm in years was “hurtling” through space and could disrupt all sorts of earthly systems like the utility grid, my cell phone, and the airline communications systems on my parents’ flight to New Orleans.

I was worried.

So I asked someone I thought might know more about this to set my heart at ease. Dr. Cordula Robinson, whose expertise is in remote sensing (“satellite imaging of the earth and other terrestrial planets”) has an asteroid named after her (2492: Cordie). If anything qualifies a person to talk to me about space, that’s it.

Turns out NPR was being a little sensationalist this time. Robinson said the “solar flare” hit the earth this morning while I was sleeping, before Morning Edition, and that it didn’t cause much trouble.

But still — what is a solar storm and why would NPR want to freak me out about it? Robinson said that the sun goes through a natural eleven year cycle of solar activity, during which our favorite star emits electromagnetic radiation in varying levels of intensity. In 2007, Robinson said, we were in something of solar flare lull. But now people are expecting some heavy duty activity for a few years.

Robinson said that looking at solar activity through a telescope is one of the few times we’re actually able to look back in time. Light takes 8 minutes to move from the sun to the earth, so the light you observe on the sun’s surface isn’t actually there any more (by the way, I guess there are special ways of doing this — you don’t look directly at the ball of fire, because that would kill your eyes).

The particular solar flare that NPR mentioned this morning actually left the sun on March 6, said Robinson, and reached us this morning around 2:30am or so.

The video above was created by NASA and gives the solar flare the close up it deserves. This thing is actually more cool than scary, at this point. I guess I should put my paranoia to bed.

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