Jan 28 2012
Last weekend’s solar flare made the news with beautiful images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.
On January 23 at 4:00am UTC (11:00pm January 22 in Pittsburgh) a huge “burp” of charged particles and magnetic fields burst off the sun at the height of a solar storm in Active Region 1402. The wave traveled at 2,200 km/second — 150 times slower than the speed of light — so we saw it before we “felt” it on January 24 around 1400 GMT (Jan 24, 9:00am EST) — plus or minus 7 hours.
Major pulses from the sun can cause outages in the electric grid and interference with radio and TV broadcasts and communication devices. The episode I best remember was when a pulse killed Telstar 401 and stopped PBS broadcasting until they could find a new satellite and we re-pointed our station dish.
Earth’s magnetic field protects us from these “burps” but it gets distorted while doing so. In normal times the solar wind squashes our magnetic field on the earth’s sunward (day) side and elongates on the night side. Here’s a diagram from NASA showing how that works with the sun positioned at top left.
In a solar flare event the magnetic bulge on the night side gets longer, the loops break and they “flap in the breeze.” When the field snaps back it releases energy that whacks the earth’s upper atmosphere, causing the beautiful northern lights and sometimes electro-magnetic interference.
This week nothing much happened except …
On Tuesday morning around 7:00am an electrical transformer at WQED blew up and burned. It was quickly extinguished and the damage was minor, but it left us without electricity. Thanks to our generator we remained on the air and on the web. All day Tuesday and into the night, the electricians worked hard to hook up a temporary power feed. Unfortunately, when they switched us back to house power on Wednesday morning at 2:00am an internal surge tripped a breaker on our emergency grid and we went off the air and off the web.
So it’s been an exciting week for us in technology at WQED. The flare probably didn’t cause our electrical problem but the timing was quite a coincidence.
Watch what happened on the sun in this cool video from NASA SDO:
(All photos from NASA. Click on the images to see the originals.)