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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU professor studies storms from the sun in 3-D

About every 100 years, a "perfect storm" from the sun strikes Earth, which can cause devastation to society, reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina or the more recent earthquake in Haiti. But, what if scientists could predict to near perfect accuracy a major storm days in advance?

This illustration shows the STEREO spacecrafts and the Sun. (Photo courtesy of NASA. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

New Mexico State University professor James McAteer is working in collaboration with researchers from Trinity College Dublin to study mechanisms by which solar storms travel from the sun to Earth. Their work enables scientists to better forecast the arrival time and impact of solar storms on our planet. A paper led by a team in Trinity College Dublin has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

McAteer has been working with Trinity, NASA, and the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) mission for four years. As part of the project, two spacecrafts are in outer space, taking pictures of the sun.

"Until STEREO was launched, the only view we had of the sun came from the Earth's vantage point," McAteer said. "So, we could only see it from one angle. When we only see it from one vantage point, we can't tell if something is coming toward us or from an angle."

The two STEREO spacecrafts view the sun from two different angles, giving scientists depth perception when viewing solar storms, allowing them to create a three-dimensional image on Earth.

The spacecrafts are constantly in motion, cycling around the sun. McAteer said they can use the data they collect to monitor Earth-directed solar storms for four years before the crafts are on the opposite side of the sun. While the spacecrafts are behind the sun, researchers can still collect valuable data about our star McAteer said.

With the information and images scientists collect, McAteer said they can now accurately track these storms, and thereby predict with amazing accuracy when a storm will hit, as well as the level of impact, giving them a chance to warn people to make preparations if necessary.

Solar storms can negatively affect communications and power distribution systems on Earth. If a storm can be predicted, airline companies or workers at power plants can take action to avoid damage.