Blowin' in the supersonic wind

Storms on the Sun can create havoc here on Earth. A new project will in vestigate their causes. Peter Bond reports

Magnificent aurora displays, power blackouts, disrupted telephone networks, disorientated compasses, disabled satellites and a rise in hospital admissions for people with severe depression. What do all these have in common? They are all the resul ts of gigantic storms on the Sun which bombard our planet with streams of electrically charged particles.

If all goes well, six spacecraft will be launched this year to learn more about the causes of these storms and to improve the chances of predicting the onset of future bombardments of the Earth. They form part of a major scientific investigation, known as the International Solar-Terrestrial Physics (ISTP) programme. The first two major contributors to the project are already in place after the launches of Japan's Geotail satellite in 1992 and the American Wind at the beginning of November 1994. Further American, European and Russian satellites will be added to the armada over the next few years until every region of near-Earth space is being simultaneously monitored.

The satellites, heavy with instruments, will be positioned in different parts of the sky so that they can measure the stream of charged particles from the Sun - the solar wind - and their interaction with Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere. These particles have fairly low energy and take several days to cross the 93 million mile gulf between the Earth and the Sun.

Slightly faster and more energetic are the particles emitted during solar magnetic storms. Minor magnetic storms take place 10 to 15 times a year, but every so often, usually around the peak of the Sun's 11-year cycle of activity, our planet is hit by the full blast of the solar wind. On one occasion, in March 1989, the ensuing chaos included an electricity blackout for six million people in Quebec, the closure of the Vancouver stock exchange as its computers crashed and the shutdown of a nuclear power plant.

However, recent studies by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have revealed a new, less obvious threat. Although magnetic storms are more numerous near maximum solar activity, they tend to last much longer when the Sun is relatively peaceful.

During solar minimum the million-mile-per-hour gales of electrons and protons can continue unabated for up to 14 days of the Sun's 27-day rotational period.

One such storm, in January 1994, succeeded in causing major failures in two communications satellites. The problems were blamed on a low-level magnetic disturbance that started on 13 January and lasted for 10 days, creating a build-up of electrons near the satellites. When the static electricity discharged, it disabled key circuitry which affected the satellites' stabilisation systems. At the same time, it was noticed that other communications satellites started to malfunction or point in the wrong direction.

Wind's sister satellite, Polar, will be launched in December. By orbiting over the Earth's polar regions, it will be able to study what happens when the aurorae appear. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is also set to launch its ISTP contributions this year. These are a solar observatory known as Soho (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) and four identical spacecraft, collectively called Cluster, which will measure the small-scale changes that occur as they fly between the solar wind and the magnetosphere. Even though it is a European project, Soho will be launched on an American Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in September; Cluster will follow in November, launched on the new European Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French G uiana.

As our planet circles the Sun, the supersonic solar wind blows towards all parts of the solar system. Fortunately for us, the Earth's magnetic field acts as a shield, holding back most of the particles and diverting the wind around the planet to form a huge, teardrop-shaped magnetic tail on the leeward side.

However, much remains to be learned about the way the Sun behaves and how it interacts with the Earth. Last year, theories about the nature of the solar magnetic field were thrown into disarray when the Ulysses spacecraft was unable to detect a south magnetic pole on our nearest star.

In February, doubt was cast on the established theory that magnetic storms were related to violent eruptions on the Sun's surface known as solar flares. Instead, Dr Jack Gosling, of Los Alamos National Laboratory, blamed huge ejections of material from the Sun's hot outer region, the corona, which is usually only visible during total eclipses.

According to this new theory, the disruption on Earth is caused by gigantic bubbles which are torn away from the corona and launched across interplanetary space towards us. "Most people now accept this idea," says Dr. Andrew Coates, a Royal Society Research Fellow at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey. "It is probably due to a build-up of the Sun's magnetic field, which becomes unstable so that it balloons outwards."

Established theories about the origins of aurorae - the beautiful northern and southern lights - are also being re-examined. Scientists know that these scintillating illuminations are brought about by charged particles from the solar wind striking gas molecules in the atmosphere and causing them to emit light. However, exactly how the particles spiral down the Earth's magnetic field lines towards the magnetic poles is still unclear.

"There are two different mechanisms," says Dr Coates. "Some low-energy particles from the solar wind enter through a gap on the daylight side of the magnetosphere. The night-side aurorae are due to events in the tail, but there is still a debate over theexact process."

The ISTP programme is designed to solve some of these problems by providing the first simultaneous observations from different regions of geospace. By placing the spacecraft in different locations around our planet, scientists will obtain their first three-dimensional view of what is happening as the solar wind approaches and interacts with the Earth's environment.

As its name suggests, Geotail is spending much of its time inside the long, tapering magnetic tail on the side of the Earth where it is sheltered from the direct onslaught of the solar winds.

The main task of the Wind satellite is to measure the mass and energy of solar particles as they strike the Earth's outer magnetic shield. By utilising the Moon's gravity, the spacecraft will travel along a figure-of-eight-shaped path which will take it up to 990,000 miles from Earth in the direction of the Sun.

The only cloud on the horizon is the reduced Russian participation. The country's economic problems have forced the cancellation of a multi-spacecraft mission called Regatta, although two craft equipped with small sub-satellites are expected to be launched in the summer. These too will shed new light on the energy transfers within the Earth's magnetic tail which generate the stunning aurorae.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
VIDEO
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
News
Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives his annual televised question-and-answer session
peopleBizarre TV claim
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit