Solar Flares May Affect Electronics

For the sun, violent storms are on the rise. Astronomers say the amount of activity on the sun is increasing and it could potentially have an effect on some of the things we depend on.

"What are we doing?"

"We’re about to look at the sun."

Doctor Carolyn Sumners is in charge of astronomy at the Houston Museum of Science.

"What we’re trying to do is show a sun spot. Right there, I think it is. There’s a sun spot right in the center of the sun."

She has me stand in front a sun dial which is outside in front of the museum. A light passes through a hole on the dial and casts a shadow on a piece of paper.

"That is the sun!"

Doctor Sumners shows me a dot on the sun that she says is actually a huge mass of gas — a storm.

"And what’s important about it — remember it takes 100 Earths to go across the face of the sun — so when you see a 'little sun spot' and you used the term little — it’s many times the size of the Earth."

That large storm on the sun is shooting particles towards the Earth. But Rice Astronomy professor David Alexander says they could never hit the Earth.

"The earth has its own magnetic field and that protects us a lot from this plasma."

Although they won’t hit the earth, they could make life difficult for us if they hit communications satellites in space. Those satellites control things like cell phones and GPS, not to mention satellite TV with all those channels.

"Sometimes when your computer freezes, it is a cosmic ray doing a little —  it's called a single event upset and your computer freezes and you just reboot — that what happens up there.  If you’re lucky, it’s a single event and you can reboot the satellite the next time you’re in communication with it. If you’re unlucky you never talk to it again. And that has happened, but it takes a big storm to do that."

For Astronomers the increasing activity on the sun is a really big deal. They get big smiles on their faces like some people do when talking about sports or their favorite TV shows.

"The sun has become less active recently. We wondered does that have anything to do with our climate? What is the role the sun plays? So understanding how the sun affects the Earth is an ongoing research question that is very critical."

Carolyn Sumners says you don’t have to use a sun dial to see the sun dots or storms. You can just go to the George Observatory and look at it with a telescope.

"I love this stuff. Isn't’ that cool? That’s what it looks like with a big telescope..."