President Obama issues executive order to prepare for severe space weather

October 13, 2016 07:05 PM

SCHENECTADY -- Extreme weather on earth can cause major devastation. But scientists said it would pale in comparison to what a major solar storm could do.

"If we get a direct hit here on earth, it can cause our power grids to go down. It can damage our satellites," said Dr. Valerie Rapson an astrophysicist for the Dudley Observatory at miSci in Schenectady.

WEB EXTRA: Dr. Valerie Rapson

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Dr. Rapson said depending on the severity of the hit, it could even threaten life here on earth. Here's how it could happen. Solar flares originate from explosions on the surface of the sun. They're like a million nuclear bombs exploding a the same time, according to scientists.

"The explosions are very strong. This high energy radiation like x-rays and gamma-rays, they can be very dangerous," Dr. Rapson said.

The dangerous rays travel through space. Earth has been hit a few times in history. The last big one was in the mid 1800's.  But today with technology so vital to everyday life, a direct hit could be devastating.

"Our biggest danger is really kind of frying the satellites or sending a power surge through our power grids and knocking out power for a majority of the country or even the world," she added.

Rapson said back in 2015 scientists and government officials felt it was important to prepare the power grids, the satellites and everything in between in a way that flares would not cause any damage. She said the president's executive order on Thursday was a push for action.

"To get astronomers together to provide funding for solar telescopes and things that we could use to start to predict these flares and prepare for them," she said.

For now, Dr. Rapson said scientists know the sun has an 11-year flare cycle called solar max and solar minimum. The last solar max was in 2011. That means 2022 would be the next solar maximum. And Dr. Rapson said that's probably the greatest upcoming threat. However it could happen any time.


Dan Bazile

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