Published: August 8, 2013
The earth will be lashed with energy from a change in the sun's polarity in the coming weeks, but officials at Air Force Space Command say they're ready for it.
It comes as the a sun's magnetic field is set to reverse, something that happens about once every 11years. The change is frequently accompanied by severe solar storms, which can fry electrical circuits, overpower radio signals and turn satellites into space junk.
Brig. Gen. David Buck, operations director for Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base said the military's satellites can weather the storm.
"It messes with the environment (in space) more than it messes with our satellites," Buck said.
The sun is constantly showering the earth with energy. When its magnetic field changes, electrical fields coming off the sun form a wave-like pattern that lashes the earth erratically.
"We're in the middle of it," said Bob Rutledge, operations director of the National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder. "It's something that plays out over months or years."
Rutledge said the sun has remained relatively calm for the past year.
"We've had a quiet solar maximum," he said, referring to the cycle of solar weather that reaches its peak at solar maximum.
The polarity shift in the sun reverses its magnetic field, like flipping a magnet on the refrigerator.
"It happens at the peak of each solar cycle as the sun's inner magnetic dynamo re-organizes itself," NASA said in a news release. "The coming reversal will mark the midpoint of Solar Cycle 24."
Space Command's satellites are "hardened" to deal with radiation and solar storms. That means that their computer chips are protected against power surges and other impacts of getting zapped with waves of energy.
Buck said that doesn't mean that space weather doesn't cause headaches. In some cases, satellites can be briefly knocked offline if a power surge causes them to reboot.
"Our satellites are designed to fight through it," Buck said.
In solar flares, part of the sun's energy is released as radio waves, which can interfere with satellite signals.
Buck said planning helps ground controllers deal with that. Watching space weather allows ground controllers to send signals to their satellites before the storm hits, and lets them known when the storms will pass.
The sun's weekend weather forecast included just a 1 percent chance of severe storms that could impact earth, and temperatures of 10 million degrees on its surface.