A new NASA satellite could help predict powerful solar storms that cause havoc on Earth — "space Katrina" events that can trigger massive electrical blackouts and communication failures, researchers say.
The Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday with instruments designed to analyze the sun's atmosphere, its surface and even its interior.
The instruments were built by the University of Colorado in Boulder and Lockheed Martin in Palo Alto, Calif.
If all goes as planned, the instruments will allow scientists to forecast solar flares, eruptions of charged particles. When those particles collide with the Earth's magnetic field, the effects are called space weather, and they can be spectacular.
Electromagnetic disruptions from a 1989 solar storm caused a power grid in Quebec to overload and shut down for nine hours, leaving an estimated 6 million people without electricity. A 2006 solar storm disoriented virtually all GPS receivers on the half of the Earth that was facing the sun.
Radiation from solar flares could be harmful to space travelers and even airline crews who are repeatedly exposed to it on flights over the Earth's poles, researchers say.
Future solar storms could cause "a space Katrina kind of event" with hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and disruption, said Dan Baker, director of Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado.
SDO is designed to look for activity on the sun that triggers flares, said Phil Chamberlin, the deputy project scientist for SDO. He hopes that will allow forecasters to say with 90 percent certainty that a flare will occur in the next 12 to 24 hours.
Although there's no way to shield the Earth from solar storms, better forecasting would give governments and private companies more time to prepare.
Current forecasting relies on observing flares as they happen, Chamberlin said. By the time the flares are visible from Earth, the charged particles have already begun to arrive.
"You look at the sun and say, 'Whoops, we just saw a big flare, it's going to affect us,' " Chamberlin said.
One of SDO's biggest advantages over its predecessors will be a heavy and steady flow of data. The satellite's orbit means it will only rarely lose sight of the sun, and it will be in constant contact with a ground station near Las Cruces, N.M.
SDO will send 1.5 terabytes of data — the equivalent of a half-million iTunes songs — every 24 hours, Chamberlin said, far more than any previous NASA satellite.
That allows SDO to send one image of the sun every 1.25 seconds, giving scientists real-time information. Currently, the best rate is one image every 12 minutes.
One of SDO's instruments, the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager or HMI, will analyze naturally occurring waves that pass through the sun.
Changes in the waves indicate internal movements that affect solar magnetic fields, which in turn cause solar eruptions, researchers say.
Another instrument, the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly or AIA, will study the corona, the outer layer of the sun's atmosphere. Scientists hope the data will tell them how solar storms get started and how they move up through the sun's atmosphere.
The third instrument, the Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment, or EVE, will analyze extreme ultraviolet rays that cause big changes in Earth's upper atmosphere. They can heat and expand the atmosphere, causing more drag on satellites. They can also create ions that disrupt radio signals and GPS.
Lockheed Martin's Solar Astrophysics Laboratory built HMI and AIA. The university's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics built EVE.
SDO's total cost is projected to be $856 million, which covers five years of operation and six years of data analysis.