New Telescopes Warns of Solar Storms

12 Feb 2013

As it stands today, solar storms can’t be prevented, but a new telescope in Australia reveals that an advanced — and faster — warning system is on the horizon.

The telescope, called the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), is expected to save the world billions of dollars due a more accurate warning system. The MWA was developed in the land “down under” and is able to detect certain forecasts that could damage the solar system, including solar storms.

Before the MWA was developed, astronomers only had about 3-4 hours of warning before a solar disturbance occurs. However, with the telescope, they can be given up to 20 hours of warning.

Solar storms, also called solar flares and solar bursts, can wreak havoc on satellites, disrupting GPS navigation and GPS tracking systems. Solar storms cause disturbances in the planet’s magnetic field which can lead to disruptions. The storms, or geomagnetic storms, damage the electric power grids, communication satellites, and GPS navigation system when causing the disturbances. Solar storms are one of the biggest threats to GPS satellites and systems.

There are many predictions about the effect solar systems could have in the future; the worst being that a storm could cost the United States $2 trillion in damages to power networks and communications systems.  An increase in solar storm activity is expected during the summer of 2013, when we are at the peak of the current 11-year Solar Cycle timescale.

Ideal for reception of low-frequency radio, the MWA telescope is located in a remote area of the western outback. It has been designed to get excellent views of the sun and track solar storms when they emerge. This lets the telescope send out early warning signs before the solar storm reaches Earth. It is expected to be used soon since the Sun will enter a period of unsettled solar activity this year. The telescope is made with spider-like antennas that can gather radio waves from the sky and produce images every few seconds.

“The MWA will keep watch on the Sun during the upcoming period of maximum solar activity.  It has the potential to deliver very real and immediate benefits to the entire global population. It is a tremendous achievement and testament to the innovative technologies that have been developed to support this instrument,” said Steven Tingay, director of the MWA and professor of radio astronomy at Curtin University in Australia.

Aside from tracking solar storms for advance warning, scientists can use the telescope to study the early history of the universe. Researchers hope to utilize the MWA and its ability to take images every few seconds, such as learning how dark matter and gravity were formed. Professor Tingay also thinks the telescope will be able to detect space debris which can further help protect satellites and communication systems from being disturbed.

“Understanding how the dramatic transformation took place soon after the Big Bang, over 13 billion years ago, is the final frontier for astrophysicists like me,” said Tingay.

The MWA is located about 800 kilometers from Perth, Australia, and will cover about 3km in Murchison, which is a lightly populated area. There are 13 institutions involved, including from Australia, the United States, India, and New Zealand, in the MWA design and development, which has taken 8 years to build.

The MWA is expected to be fully operational this month

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