ATLANTA — Poor prediction of space weather -- sun spots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections -- could lead to a devastating failure of North America's electrical grid.
Severe Weather Team 2 Chief Meteorologist Glenn Burns traveled to the Mount Wilson Observatory in the Los Angeles National Forest to learn how Georgia State University astronomers' research could lead to advanced forecasting.
Overlooking Los Angeles, the path's 112-year-old observatory has been traveled by science greats such as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and even Edwin Hubble.
They are the same paths that solar observer Steve Padilla takes to work every day.
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He showed Burns how he's been watching the sun for more than 40 years.
"Any sunspots today?" Burns asked.
"There's two sunspot groups," Padilla explained.
Padilla hand-draws sun spots, dark patches of magnetic activity. Some are larger than Jupiter.
"The greater the sunspot, the greater the chances it could be an active region where there's things happening," Padilla told Burns. "The effects of these solar events can have a significant effect on the whole earth."
Effects Dr. Piet Martens at Georgia State University said solar events could have disastrous impacts on Earth.
"The very worst thing that could happen is a solar explosion that is right directed at the Earth," Martens said. "(It) would be a really giant national disaster with a lot of human suffering."
Martens said effects on satellites, GPS and even North America's power grids could mean trillions of dollars in damage, and could take months to repair. He said better forecasting could mitigate much of the damage.
"The hardest thing for solar flares is, just like earth quakes, actually is predicting exactly when they are going to happen," Martens said.
Georgia State researchers are improving forecasting by creating prediction models using data analytics.
He said studying other stars would help.
With a new grant, Georgia State will be combining their computer science and astronomy programs to form a Solar Stellar Informatics program focusing on space weather and space climate.
Even the White House has an action plan to promote an international effort on better forecasting.
"We learn more about the sun by looking at stars like the sun," Martens said.
In the shadow of Mount Wilson's century-old telescopes is the Center for High Angular Astronomy (CHARA) array, operated by Georgia State University. The array uses six telescopes to make some of the highest resolution images of stars ever seen.
"You could measure a dime from ten thousand miles away," CHARA Director Dr. Theo ten Brummelaar explained to Burns about the power of the array.
"Seriously?" Burns asked.
"You could see a footprint on the moon," ten Brummelaar said.
Ten Brummelaar said the $50 million facility's ability to observe space weather on other stars will help scientists understand the sun's weather cycle.
"It's impossible to build a 300-meter telescope," ten Brummelaar explained. "So, we place single telescopes around, we bring the light together in a central building."
From six custom telescopes, light from stars passes through more than 20 mirrors, through vacuum tubes and into the array's beam lab, combining starlight into one picture.
"Every pair of telescopes you use gives you another slice of the star," CHARA research scientist Gail Schaefer told Burns as she showed him the beam combining lab. "As the earth rotates, your projection onto the star moves, so then you can build up enough information to reconstruct an image of what the star actually looks like."
Images that researchers hope will help us understand the power of our own sun.
"The sun has the potential to destroy our communications systems, they could interfere with our satellite technology," ten Brummelaar said. "A lot depends on that."
Cox Media Group