NASA Podcasts

NASA EDGE: Solar Max-Storm Warning
› Download Vodcast (471MB)

NASA's Sun-Earth Days 2013: Solar Max-Storm Warning
- Alex Young
- Daniel Smith
- Lou Mayo
- Kelly Fast
- Joe Burt
- Doug Voss


ANNOUNCER: Solar Max-Storm Warning, this year’s Sun Earth Day theme. How do scientists and engineers work together to study the Sun Earth connection? Are other planets in the solar system affected by the Sun? Plus, we take a sneak peek at an upcoming mission to the Moon. All this on NASA EDGE!

CHRIS: Welcome to NASA EDGE...

FRANKLIN: …an inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: We’re at the Wallop’s Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

FRANKLIN: For Sun Earth Day 2013 Solar Max.

CHRIS: Storm warning affects on the solar system.

FRANKLIN: Before we get started, we’re going to start with our Space Weather Action Report from NASA EDGE’s own, Blair Allen, who’s reporting from…

CHRIS: Blair, what’s going on?


BLAIR: Yes, yes, guys. Very good. Hi. I’m Blair and I’m reporting live from the surface of the moon during solar max with a Special Space Weather Action Center Report. As you know, this is the most dangerous time to subject yourself to solar activity, especially from the moon. During solar max, we are at the apex. We are at the pinnacle. We are at the top. We are at the zenith, if you will, of solar activity. And right now, even though you can’t see it, I am being bombarded protonically from solar radiation. In fact, it’s so dangerous that it makes David Banner’s accident look like a jog through an airport scanner.

CHRIS: Don’t you mean Bruce Banner?

BLAIR: Bruce or David, either version of the character, child’s play compared to what I’m facing right now. If not for this protective suit, I would be wasting away right now.

CHRIS: Why are you on the moon because there appears to be a lot of solar activity?

BLAIR: Don’t let the activity on the sun fool you. One of the qualities and characteristics of solar max is it can burst out at any given moment. Now, here on the moon I’m about 20 clicks south of the Shackleton Rim. I’m on the southern part of the moon near the Antipenes I believe, but I did lose my map and some GPS as a result of solar max.

FRANKLIN: Blair, I think everybody here wants to know whether or not you are hot or cold in that suit because space is generally cold.

CHRIS: It’s cold here.

FRANKLIN: Cold, yeah. [Laughing]

BLAIR: Well Franklin, one thing to point out is as you may or may not know apparently, the moon does not have an atmosphere. In fact, we barely have a magnetosphere. We sort of glide through the magnetosphere of the Earth on occasion but essentially we are ex-magnetosphera, which means there’s no protection from radiation. To get to your question, I am very cool inside this suit. It’s cold on the moon, radiation doesn’t mean hot but I’m wearing a thermal controlled insulating suit underneath this suit. I must say, despite the radiation, quite comfortable.

CHRIS: Blair, I tell you what, have a safe trip back to Earth. Hopefully, you’ll make it okay.

BLAIR: One more thing Chris. One thing to remind folks, if you are planning on travelling to the moon during the solar max, just remember to pack enough food because anything you try to cook on the surface is going to turn out like green eggs and ham. I mean really green eggs and ham. You will not like them in a room. You will not like them on the moon.

FRANKLIN: Alex, right now we’re supposed to be in solar max but there’s not as much activity going on.

ALEX: The scientists had predicted that we were going to reach solar maximum sometime in 2013, maybe towards the end. I think the estimate was about May. But what we’ve come to find is the activity has really toned down over the last couple months. We reached really the peak towards the end of 2011. What scientists really think is happening is if you look back in history many of the previous solar cycles don’t have one hump, one maximum, but in fact, have two. That’s what we think is going to happen. We’ve reached one of those humps and think that eventually the activity will pick back up and we’ll see another hump, a double hump solar maximum.

FRANKLIN: From solar minimum to solar maximum, have you been able to determine what causes the fluctuation in solar activity between those years?

ALEX: That is one of the $64,000 questions in Solar Physics. It’s a great question. We’ve made a lot of progress in that and one of the reasons we’ve made so much progress is because of SDO. SDO has the instrument called HMI. It’s looking at the magnetic field on the surface and inside the sun. We know that the solar cycle is governed by the magnetic field that is generated inside of the sun. SDO has allowed us to look inside the sun and see a lot of the magnetic activity. It’s given us a much, much more detailed view of this. We don’t know yet but we’re getting closer and closer to understanding this magnetic activity. We call it the magnetic dynamo.


CHRIS: One of the things I also noticed too. Back in February, SDO was able to see a sunspot form over a 48-hour period. What exactly is a sunspot and why is it important in studying the sun?

ALEX: As I mentioned, the sun generates its own magnetic field. The magnetic field in the sun starts very simple going from north to south. Because the middle of the sun moves faster than the top or bottom, much like Jupiter or Saturn. It causes the magnetic field inside the sun to get all twisted up like a rubber band. You take a rubber band, you twist it and twist it and it starts to knot up and pop. The same thing happens with magnetic fields. They poke through the surface and where they poke through the surface, you see those dark patches. Those are sunspots. That is a really high concentration of magnetic field. That is the driver of solar activity. SDO has allowed us to see these sunspots evolve from being very simple to being very complex and in incredible detail. That’s really, really critical to understanding solar activity, solar flares and prominence eruptions for example.

FRANKLIN: Speaking of prominence eruptions, we have one right behind us that was captured by SDO. It just looks like a big splash of water. How long does it take for something like that actually to happen? I know what we’re seeing is sped up.

ALEX: Right. That’s happening on a time scale of several hours, anywhere from 4 to 6 hours but the thing you have to understand is that the speed of those things is close to a million miles an hour. So, it’s really fast. That area you’re seeing is many 10s of times larger than the Earth. It’s incredibly huge. That prominence, that material is 30 or 40 Earths from end to end. This is hundreds of thousands of miles long. It’s just a huge, huge structure. Those things fly off the sun and create something we call coronal mass ejection, which is another big driver of space weather.

CHRIS: What exactly are the Van Allen probes?

DANIEL: The Van Allen probes are two spacecraft that are orbiting the Earth in a very elliptical orbit right now. They pass through the most dangerous region in the space above us where there is very high energy electrons, protons and other ions.

CHRIS: You actually made an important discovery very early on in the mission.

DANIEL: That’s right. We were really fortunate. We launched August 30th and during September and October the Sun decided to have a party.


DANIEL: The space in the radiation belt region was very active. We saw a really cool phenomenon where usually there’s two main radiation belts or donut shape regions. We saw a third belt form and then disappear in about four weeks it took. This is an animation of a model that is based on the data taken from the Van Allen probes. It was a particular instrument called REPT, which measures electrons at very high energy. You can see that there are a bunch of them in the inner belt. They look like ears in this picture. They follow the Earth’s magnetic field. You can see this very large outer belt. There’s this region in the outer belt where there’s a space what we call the slot region that separates the outer belt into two belts. That occurred when this inner planetary shock hit the Earth’s magnetosphere and wiped out what was there and slowly built back up that outer built. Later on, another shock comes by. It’s not in this animation. It just wipes the whole outer belt, completely gone for a little while until it rebuilds itself again.

FRANKLIN: What advances in technology have enabled NASA to see that third belt that wasn’t present in past satellites?

DANIEL: Other satellites have seen transitory belts that would show up in the bigger slot regions that you could see in that animation before but they were there and then they were gone. This belt here had more of a life of its own and was long lived in the outer region. The satellites we used before to make those measurements are usually in low-Earth orbit. They’re measuring just the particles that get down that low. They couldn’t see what was really going on out in the main part of the belt. They’re not measuring stuff out there. Our satellites, the Van Allen probes go very close in and then go right through the middle of where the storm is happening, where the good stuff is going on. Just the fact that we could have tough spacecraft that could continue to operate in the worst part of that radiation storm is what allows us to see these things.

CHRIS: You really only have one visible connection between the Sun and the Earth and that’s through the auroras.

DANIEL: I like to say the Sun is the opposite of Vegas. What happens on the Sun does not stay on the Sun.


DANIEL: We feel it here. Depending on the time scale, sometimes it can be minutes that we’ll see stuff happen or hours. In the case of the CME hitting the magnetic field around the Earth, it could take a couple of days to travel there. When it does, it can shake that magnetic field up. The magnetic field doesn’t like to let electrons, protons, anything with an electric charge. It doesn’t want to let go straight through. It wants to bend the path of those charges. When that happens they bend around and carves a cavity out that we call the magnetosphere but it will make the magnetic field reconfigure in ways that can throw some of the particles that are always trapped in there right back towards the Earth. In fact, the particles that create the aurora are particles that are coming from behind, the opposite of the sun side of the Earth, what we call the tail of the magnetosphere. It shoots right back in and when they do come down they hit the upper atmosphere anything above 50 miles or so. They hit the oxygen and the nitrogen in the atmosphere. When they do, they make those atoms very excited. Once those atoms get excited, they have to do something with that energy. They let it go. They let it go in the form of photons, lights in particular colors. The oxygen wants to let go of light in red and also in green. The nitrogen wants to let go of blue light.

FRANKLIN: Why do we mostly see the green lights in pictures that we see?

DANIEL: The transition that happens in the oxygen atoms are faster for the green lights than the red lights. Red we see up higher because there’s less atmosphere up higher, so the particles don’t bump into each other as often. They have more time to let go of that red light but when you get further down they have less time. You’re only going to see them let go of the green light. Those are the ones a little closer to the ground so we tend to see those a little better.

CHRIS: Besides Earth, what are the most important planets in terms of planetary impacts from the sun? Who gets bombarded the most besides Earth?

LOU: Well, I guess we might say the planet closest to the Sun would get bombarded the most, that being Mercury. It gets absolutely creamed by the solar wind on a daily basis. All the planets have some solar wind interactions that cause their atmospheres to be different, or their surfaces to be different and many of the moons too.

CHRIS: You talked about Mercury being bombarded. Of course, the next planet in line is Venus.

KELLY: Venus doesn’t have a substantial magnetic field. So, it does get pummeled by the solar wind. As a result, it strips away things that are in the atmosphere of Venus. In fact, later this year, there’s going to be a sounding rocket mission that is going to be put together here at Wallop’s Flight Facility and tested here and shook and then launched later from White Sands, that’s going to go up above our atmosphere so it can get a good look at Venus and study the upper atmosphere of Venus and try and figure out how fast is water escaping from the atmosphere. Hydrogen, how fast is it leaving?

CHRIS: And then, of course, Mars is affected as well from the solar winds.

KELLY: Like what we were saying about Venus, Mars also does not have a substantial magnetic field to protect it like the Earth. We have the same situation where the solar wind is just pummeling Mars. Over time that atmosphere has been striped away, water, carbon dioxide, all those molecules in the atmosphere have slowly escaped over time because of what the Sun does to the upper atmosphere. There’s actually going to be a mission also later this year that’s actually going to go to Mars that’s going to launch to Mars called MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission. It’s not going to be a rover like Curiosity that’s there right now but way up above Curiosity will be MAVEN orbiting high, looking both at the affects of the Sun, the solar wind and the radiation coming from the Sun, and what it’s doing to the atmosphere to try to look at what’s happening right now and try to track it back in time. And figure out what happened to the atmosphere. Where did it go? Why does it have such a thin atmosphere now?

CHRIS: Could MAVEN actually help us eventually when we send humans to Mars in terms of understanding that chemistry, that atmosphere?

KELLY: Certainly. Understanding that environment up above the atmosphere because we saw that video earlier of Blair standing on the moon. When you have no atmosphere, there’s just no protection. Mars does have an atmosphere but it’s only about 1% of what we have on Earth. It doesn’t protect as much. Yes, to understand that environment with solar wind and radiation coming in from the Sun, what it’s doing to the upper atmosphere, and then at the same time having spacecraft on the surface like Opportunity and Curiosity looking at what’s happening on the surface. That’s how you plan eventually for putting people on Mars. First you have to see if you can have something like a rover survive on Mars in that environment.

CHRIS: Right. Lou, apparently we’re going into what they call a Mars solar conjunction period where Mars will actually be behind the Sun. The Sun might be actually be blocking that line of sight from Earth to Mars.

LOU: Right. This is a tough period for the Curiosity team and anyone else trying to communicate with their spacecraft.

KELLY: All of the spacecraft.

LOU: That’s right. The Sun is a powerful radio source and of course, for a time, it will actually block the signal. You won’t be able to communicate with their spacecraft during that short period of time.

KELLY: They’re planning ahead because they’ve been through this before with the Opportunity rover. They know how to handle this. The spacecraft, the rovers will have a plan on board in their computers for how to continue to do science but they’ll have to store a lot of that or upload it. I think Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is going to continue to relay some of that information. A lot of that is going to have to be stored because of the interference and then certainly, they don’t want to send a lot in the way of commands from Earth because they don’t want it to be misinterpreted through interference from the Sun. They have to be very careful.

BLAIR: What you’re really going to see now is a classic, a historical match up between two schools that have been uncomfortable with each other since the beginning of time. That would be the School of Engineering with Joe Bert. Not that he represents all of history, mind you but with Engineer Joe Bert.

DANIEL:: But all of engineering.

BLAIR: And Dan Smith, our scientist. Guys, thank you so much for being willing to come here today and talk about this really important issue. Could you give us an idea of what the role of an engineer is? What does your day look like as a super intelligent NASA engineer?

JOE: I guess engineering, we build stuff. We have a great job. We get to get up in the morning, come in, and we might have something in the clean room. We might have something in the chamber. We might have something being tested, something in the lab. We get to do a lot of hands on stuff and we get to put stuff together. So, it’s fun.

BLAIR: That’s interesting that you put a positive spin because I talked to an engineer earlier that said they break things.

JOE: Oh, yeah. We do that too.


JOE: That can be fun.

BLAIR: Interesting. Okay, you mentioned getting up in the morning. Do you have to get up early like 6:00 or can you coast in about 9:00 or 10:30?

JOE: You can coast in on some days but when we run the 24-hour test then you’re there a lot.

BLAIR: I was going to say it would easily be engineering up one over Science but I guess you do have your late night moments. Okay, very good. Dan, tell us a little bit about what a scientist does, what you do in your daily job when you come to work to do science.

DANIEL:: Sure. I spend a lot of time because of the type of science I do is modeling and simulation. It’s a lot of work on the computer. Unfortunately, that means I spend a lot of time at my desk, sitting in my chair. I spend a lot of time trying to get my computer codes to run and then figuring out questions and experiments to do with those things. Then, run them again. Talk to more people and then hopefully write that up and publish a paper.

BLAIR: I’m noticing something very interesting. I brought these two together to expose the conflict but notice how neither profession; neither vocation actually mentioned the other in their description. Yet, history tells us that they have to work together.

JOE: Absolutely. We don’t get to build just anything. We get some funding to build a specific thing to go look for something in particular. A telescope is a good example. A telescope has to see something. We work with the scientists very closely to determine what do you want to see. We have telescopes that look at that sun. That seems odd to point a telescope at the sun.

BLAIR: Yeah.

JOE: Don’t do that at home.

BLAIR: That’s right, very dangerous.

JOE: We have solar telescopes that specifically look at the sun. We need to work in detail with the scientific requirements. What do they really want to see? What resolution? What wavelengths? What intensity? How long do you need to stare? All those requirements we work out and then go build something that can do that hopefully.

BLAIR: Awesome. Now, Dan representing the scientific community. How do you need the engineer?

DANIEL:: Like you said before, it’s one thing to be able to think up the questions to ask and even the ways of answering those questions. Somebody has to build the instruments, to create the technology that we use to make all the measurements. It’s the engineers who do that. Sometimes what we think of might be sort of “pie in the sky” but you’ve got to talk to somebody who really knows how to make it happen to find that out. Another way we tend to communicate is by writing up all of the things you want, your wish list. The engineers will come and turn that into a list that will actually make sense that you can build something from; a list of requirements.

BLAIR: But that is a benefit, right? If you’re getting a little crazy on your ideas side, asking for too much, they sort of bring some reality to the situation.

DANIEL:: Absolutely.

BLAIR: All right.

JOE: I use an example of a car. You can design a car. It’s got 4 wheels, transmission, and engine. Is it a minivan or is it a racecar? We need to interact very closely with the scientist to make sure we’re giving him the right type of vehicle to do the job he needs to do. That’s the real difference. You’ll find that good scientists, as well as the good engineers, really understand both sides of the coin. That’s where it comes together and we try to do these one of a kind things.

FRANKLIN: Doug, real quick, let’s tell them what LADEE stands for. The Lunar…

DOUGLAS: Oh, no.

FRANKLIN: The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.

DOUGLAS: That’s right. The spacecraft is actually a very interesting spacecraft and very unique. Out at Ames, they’re building a modular spacecraft. While a lot of spacecraft are built custom and unique for the mission. This is actually built of components and systems that can be used for a lot of different spacecraft designs. That’s a really unique aspect of this mission as well. It’s going to the moon to do some really interesting science. The science is to study the atmosphere and the dust of the moon. A lot of people don’t know about atmosphere of the moon. Actually, there’s some dust there too.

BLAIR: Hmm, I didn’t know there was an atmosphere on the moon.


BLAIR: Hmm, interesting.

DOUGLAS: That’s right. It’s very small.

BLAIR: I’m kidding. I’m kidding.

FRANKLIN: Is it atmosphere or exosphere?

DOUGLAS: Actually, it is an exosphere.

BLAIR: Yes. Whew!

DOUGLAS: It’s a very rarified version of the atmosphere with what they call collisionist molecules. The molecules are so rare they don’t hit each other. Another neat thing about it is it’s bounded to the surface of the moon. While we have an exosphere out at the edges of the earth, this is very much like an exosphere that’s bounded down close to the surface of the moons. It’s a very unique type of atmosphere but it’s actually very similar to some other planetary bodies out there too. So, studying the moon will help us understand hopefully how this works on other planetary bodies as well.

FRANKLIN: What kind of engineering, since we’re talking to an engineer, what part of LADEE will be used to study the dust on the moon?

DOUGLAS: Scientists have written the requirements. Engineers…

BLAIR: Keeping peace alive.


DOUGLAS: Engineers have built systems, spectrometers mostly, that will study the dust and sense the dust as well as study the type of atmosphere. LADEE is going to essentially fly around the moon, not landing until the end of the mission. It crashes into the moon. It’s going to go around the moon as low as 20 kilometers. It will actually have an opportunity to sense the atmosphere that’s there and the dust and send that information back via a lunar laser comm demonstration system. That’s actually a system to send via laser all the data back to the Earth which again is another new aspect of this mission.

FRANKLIN: What does the study of the lunar exosphere or atmosphere and dust tell us about other planetary bodies?

DOUGLAS: It tells us the composition of the moon and how the atmosphere and potentially the dust interact. By answering those questions, we can hopefully apply it to other similar bodies. Engineers and scientists both that went to the moon as astronauts noticed that the dust behaved based on solar activity in sort of a remarkable way that was not completely known. Answering those questions might help us understand the same sort of interactions on other planets.

BLAIR: We’re done with Sun Earth Day 2013. Look for more exciting episodes in the future. Obviously, look for more shows at NASA EDGE on We’ll see you guys next episode.

FRANKLIN: You’re watching NASA EDGE.

BLAIR: An inside and outside look…

FRANKLIN: …at all things NASA.


› Download Vodcast (471MB)