Extreme Solar Storm Strikes Earth

Forecasters predict stormy space weather even as they face a budget drought

3 min read

Perhaps it was a sign from on high. On 30 October, as lawmakers in Washington, D.C., were considering the fate of the U.S. solar weather forecasting service, the most powerful solar storm in years rained high-energy particles into Earth's atmosphere. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Environment Center, in Boulder, Colo., correctly predicted to within a few hours the arrival of a series of huge geomagnetic storms that hampered high-frequency radio communications, knocked out satellites, 1203nsol01.jpgand caused an electricity blackout. The storms were some of the strongest on record, and unseasonable. Solar weather follows an 11-year cycle of activity that peaked three years ago.

The storms were the result of eruptions at the Sun's surface that belched forth X-rays and other photons, followed by clouds of charged particles that struck Earth at high speed. ”It took the [first major] geomagnetic storm just 19 hours to reach Earth after it occurred on the Sun,” says Larry Combs, a space weather forecaster at NOAA. ”That's one of the fastest-traveling solar storms this cycle.”

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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