Long-term climate changes, as well as our daily weather, are linked to the sun's activity. We're especially affected by coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are huge bubbles of electrified gas. "Coronal mass ejections are the hurricanes of space," says astronomer Nancy Crooker. "They have strong magnetic fields that link to the earth's field, thus breaching the shield that otherwise protects us from the onslaught of the solar wind."
Another reason to try to understand and predict CMEs is that they can have devastating effects on spacecraft, astronauts and satellites. A storm on the sun can cut off our cell phones on Earth. "We are seeing our satellite and communication systems becoming more susceptible to damage by space weather, and the risk is growing," says astronomer Daniel Baker.
In 1989, a major solar storm caused powerful electric currents in a large power grid in the Hydro Quebec power system that shut down the system for eight hours. In 1997, a $200 million AT&T communications satellite was destroyed during a solar storm. The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched the Cluster satellite, which monitors the effects of the solar wind close to earth, while its Ulysses satellite circles the sun in a tilted orbit, to get a closer look. NASA plans to launch a $500 million network of tiny sun-watching satellites in 2006 that will map the impact of solar winds on earth's upper atmosphere, where our communications satellites orbit.
The Mayans predicted a major galactic change in 2012?could this really happen?
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