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Sun Series: What is Space Weather?

Season 7Episode 6Apr 16, 2024

From Earth, the Sun can seem steady and predictable. But when you look at our star close up, there’s a lot going on. Go behind the scenes with NASA’s Moon to Mars Space Weather Analysis Office, a team monitoring space weather—eruptions of radiation and plasma from the Sun that can wreak havoc on spacecraft and pose dangers to astronauts. We’ll also revisit the most powerful geomagnetic storm on record, an 1859 event that produced northern lights visible in the tropics and made electrical systems go haywire. This is episode fiof the Sun and Eclipse series from NASA’s Curious Universe, an official NASA podcast.

The cover art display for the NASA's Curious Universe podcast.

Sun Series: Space Weather | About the Episode

From Earth, the Sun can seem steady and predictable. But when you look at our star close up, there’s a lot going on. Go behind the scenes with NASA’s Moon to Mars Space Weather Analysis Office, a team monitoring space weather—eruptions of radiation and plasma from the Sun that can wreak havoc on spacecraft and pose dangers to astronauts. We’ll also revisit the most powerful geomagnetic storm on record, an 1859 event that produced northern lights visible in the tropics and made electrical systems go haywire.  

Introducing NASA’s Curious Universe         

Get curious with NASA. As an official NASA podcast, Curious Universe brings you mind-blowing science and space adventures you won’t find anywhere else. Explore the cosmos alongside astronauts, scientists, engineers, and other top NASA experts who are achieving remarkable feats in science, space exploration, and aeronautics. Learn something new about the wild and wonderful universe we share. All you need to get started is a little curiosity. 

NASA’s Curious Universe is an official NASA podcast hosted by Padi Boyd and Jacob Pinter 

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Find the full NASA’s Curious Universe catalog at 


[Song: “Science Network” by Carl David Harms]  

HOST PADI BOYD: Hey space nerds. If you were in the path of the solar eclipse, I hope you had clear skies and an incredible experience. We’ll share dispatches from the path of totality in a bonus episode soon. In the meantime, the Sun isn’t going anywhere and neither are we. We live in the atmosphere of a dynamic and sometimes turbulent star. Solar activity can have serious effects on Earth and to NASA astronauts and spacecraft.  

This is NASA’s Curious Universe. Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. I’m your host Padi Boyd, and in this podcast, NASA is your tour guide.  


[Song: “Curiosity” by SYSTEM Sounds] 


In the fourth episode of our Sun series, we’re visiting a place not many people get to go: NASA’s daily briefing of the Sun’s activity. 


JACOB PINTER: Check, check, check. All right. Well, it’s a Tuesday morning. I just pulled up to the Goddard Space Flight Center here in Maryland. It’s a beautiful day. 


PADI: This is Jacob Pinter, my cohost for Curious Universe. He’s going to help me tell the story. 


JACOB: It’s finally warm. It’s really sunny. It’s nice to see the Sun this way, but I’m going to see what’s actually going on with the Sun. Let’s see what the space weather’s like.  


[sound of knocking on a door] 


Hi, how’s it going?   


MELISSA KANE: I’m new. Melissa.  


JACOB: Hey, I’m Jacob. Nice to meet you (fades out … ) 


[to Padi] So Padi, as you can hear, I made some new friends.  


[Song: “Constant Motion” by Ben Niblett and Jon Cotton] 


When I heard about this NASA office watching the Sun closely, keeping an eye for huge outbursts from the Sun, I knew I just had to meet this team. 


PADI: Well I’m excited to hear about them. There’s so much fascinating work going on at NASA that it can be hard to keep up, even for us insiders. So who are they?  


JACOB: So this is NASA’s Moon to Mars Space Weather Analysis Office. I want you to put in a pin in the Moon to Mars part because we’ll come back to that later. Day to day, they are watching the Sun’s every move.  


HANNAH HERMANN: I often say that we babysit the Sun, just monitoring the Sun for any “misbehavior”. 


JACOB: This is Hannah Hermann. She’s a space weather analyst. And when we talk about space weather, it’s not like space tornadoes and space hurricanes. It all comes back to the Sun.  


CARINA ALDEN: So, space weather. Gosh, it’s so hard to give a good definition. 


JACOB: Carina Alden is also a space weather analyst.  


CARINA: A lot of times when people say “what is space weather”, they say it’s the interaction between the Sun and the Earth. 


JACOB: As we have talked about on this show—and as you may remember from middle school science class—Earth is surrounded by a kind of shield called the magnetosphere.  


PADI: Yeah, the Sun is constantly emitting radiation that can be harmful to life, and our magnetosphere keeps us safe.  


JACOB: Yeah, that’s it. But remember, we are an extremely small part of the solar system. When you define “space weather” as something that only involves the Sun and Earth, it’s kind of like saying, Well I live in Washington, D.C, so the definition of “weather” is what’s happening in the sky in Washington, D.C. It’s just one small slice of a much bigger picture. And the same is true for space weather.  


CARINA: I think a more inclusive way to explain the umbrella term of space weather is that it’s not just what the Sun is doing to Earth, but it’s also, what’s the Earth doing to this interaction with the Sun? And then what’s the Sun doing to other planets and other—for us, like what missions, NASA missions are involved in all of that? 


PADI: I like that definition though. I think we’re all familiar with Earth weather. A lot of us check it every single day. But what about space weather? What kinds of phenomena does this office have to watch out for?  


JACOB: So not unlike Earth, the Sun’s weather has patterns. There are things you can expect to see all the time or on fixed cycles. For starters, the Sun is always releasing this stream of particles called solar wind. And people also may be familiar with sunspots. Those are darker spots that come and go. To me—and I’m sorry if this is a little gross—but they kind of look like pimples on the surface of the Sun.  


PADI: Um, ew. You know, sunspots are actually really important to track, because those are places where the Sun’s magnetic field is more intense.  


JACOB: Right. And then there are also events that are more unpredictable, like solar flares.  


[Song: “Ionosphere” by Gage Boozan] 


HANNAH: Flares are one of those sudden bursts of energy—of radiation—from very concentrated spots on the solar surface. 


JACOB: One of the other space weather analysts—a guy named Tony, who we’ll hear from later—he had a great analogy for this. The Sun’s magnetic field is constantly swirling around like a bowl of spaghetti, and a solar flare is like someone sticks a fork into that magnetic spaghetti and twists it all around.  


HANNAH: It can get to a point if that magnetic tension is high enough, where that sunspot can’t sustain it anymore. The magnetic field lines will suddenly snap into a more convenient and stable configuration, but a side effect of that is that a huge amount of energy is released. 


JACOB: That energy comes in the form of electromagnetic radiation, which means a flare shoots off the Sun at the speed of light, and it can reach Earth in a matter of minutes. Hot on its heels can be another type of space weather. 


CARINA: If we see a solar flare, the next thing we may be looking for is a coronal mass ejection. Coronal mass ejection, as I like to call it for simplicity purposes, is a burp from the Sun. It’s a burp of plasma. 


JACOB: Now this burp can be made up of billions of tons of magnetized material from the Sun erupting into space. And when the Sun’s magnetic material crashes into Earth’s magnetosphere, you can get a geomagnetic storm. If you’ve ever destroyed something by leaving a magnet too close to it, you will understand why we need to keep an eye on coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. They can be bad news for satellites and other spacecraft. 


CARINA: And so with the coronal mass ejections, we’re also looking to see okay, what’s the size of this coronal mass ejection? How wide is it? How fast is it going? Which direction is it going? 


PADI: Well since you’re saying that coronal mass ejections are made of matter, that means they can’t travel at the speed of light, right?  


Jacob: Yeah, I knew I couldn’t slip any laws of physics questions past you. So coronal mass ejections typically reach Earth in a matter of days, so we can have a little bit of heads up but not a lot.  


PADI: Well I want to know what happens when this space weather makes it to Earth. Is it dangerous?  


JACOB: The short answer is: sometimes, yes. I mean, that’s one reason NASA and other groups keep such a close eye on the Sun. But to answer your question, I want to turn the dial all the way up to 10. I’m going to tell you about the biggest solar event ever recorded, how it inspired and even terrified people who saw it, and what it could mean if it happened again today. So how does that sound?  


PADI: OK, let’s do it. So how far back are we going?

JACOB: Well Padi, come with me, if you will, to the year 1859.  



[Song: “Nocturnal Memories” by Ben Hicks] 

So this was the year Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. And it also wasn’t long after the planet Neptune had been discovered.  


PADI: Hmm. Sounds like scientific discovery might have been in the air.  


JACOB: Well I’d like to think so anyway. So it’s the end of August. Solar activity is ramping up. People notice that the aurora is much more active than normal. And then at the beginning of September, it happens.  


RICHARD CARRINGTON (voiced by Michael Starobin): While engaged in the forenoon of Thursday, September 1st, in taking my customary observation of the forms and positions of the solar spots, an appearance was witnessed which I believe to be exceedingly rare.

JACOB: These are the words of a British astronomer named Richard Carrington. So, outside of London, he had created his own device that used a telescope and a white sheet to study the Sun safely. And on this morning, as he was charting sunspots, he saw a huge flash.    


CARRINGTON (voiced by Starobin): My first impression was that by some chance a ray of light had penetrated a hole in the screen attached to the object-glass, by which the general image is thrown into shade, for the brilliance was fully equal to that of direct sunlight. 


JACOB: What Carrington saw was not a hole in his screen. It was actually a solar flare, and until this moment, no human had ever seen one with their own eyes. Within a day or so, a lot more people would notice its effects. In London, the newspaper reported an unusually strong display of the northern lights.  


ACCOUNT FROM THE LONDON TIMES (voiced by Heidi Leach): During the first display the whole of the northern hemisphere was as light as though the sun had set an hour before. The luminous waves…  


JACOB: And it wasn’t just London. The New York Times wrote about it.   


ACCOUNT FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES (voiced by Angel Kumari): The northern heavens were perfectly illuminated, with the exception of a few dim and almost imperceptible white streamers. 


JACOB: And there were sightings in Japan. 


EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT (voiced by Erin Roberts): In the evening, my son returned home from the temple. He said that on his way home, the northern sky seemed to be burning. Did a fire break out?  


JACOB: And also in the southern hemisphere, like Australia.  


ACCOUNT FROM THE MELBOURNE ARGUS (voiced by Michelle Handleman): The red glare illuminated the earth and tinged even the whole of the northern horizon. 


JACOB: So Padi, people saw this aurora all over the world.  


PADI: Wow. We usually think of the aurora as something that only happens in polar region. That’s why they’re called the northern and southern lights. But it sounds like that wasn’t the case in 1859. 


JACOB: Nope. You could actually see this aurora in the tropics. There are reports from as far south as Panama and Colombia. I mean, this was a really strange, exceptional event.  


PADI: I definitely never heard about seeing the aurora in the tropics before.  


JACOB: It would blow your mind, right?  


PADI: So why did the aurora behave like that? Do we know the answer?  


JACOB: Yeah, so today, with what we know about space weather, we’ve determined that after Richard Carrington saw that solar flare, a huge coronal mass ejection followed it. That CME probably reached Earth in about 18 hours. And that’s when the aurora went bonkers. We don’t know exactly how big this solar storm was. But it’s widely considered to be the most powerful space weather event recorded to hit Earth. 


PADI: Gosh, sorry I missed it. So what kind of effects did it have?  


JACOB: Well, there are a couple of different ways to answer that. On one hand, this strange, red aurora was super dramatic. It apparently made a huge impact on people who saw it. There are newspaper reports from the time mentioning that some people thought the aurora was an omen of something terrible about to happen or even Armageddon. People wrote letters and poems about how terrifying and awe-inspiring it was. There’s at least one painting that’s believed to be inspired by the aurora. I mean, people could tell this was really extraordinary.  


PADI: That’s pretty spooky. I mean, it sounds like one of those moments when you realize just how connected we all are. I’ve heard people talk about total solar eclipses the same way.  


JACOB: Now, there’s another way to look at it too.  


[Song: “Survival Mode” by Jez Hurst and Thom Powell] 


In 1859 we were in the early days of electrical infrastructure. There was no wide-scale power grid, like we have now. But there was this newfangled thing called the telegraph, which, for the kids out there, was kind of like the grandfather of email. So the geomagnetic storm made the telegraph system go completely haywire. One of the most fascinating examples is a conversation recorded between two telegraph operators.   


TELEGRAPH OPERATOR 1 (voiced by Julia Tilton): Please cut off your battery entirely from the line for 15 minutes. 


TELEGRAPH OPERATOR 2 (voiced by Angel Kumari): Will do so. It is now disconnected. 


JACOB: So, one end of this conversation was in Boston. The other was in Maine, which more than a hundred miles away, and they realized that the electromagnetic current produced by the storm was so strong that even when they completely turned off the power they could still send messages.  


OPERATOR 1 (voiced by Tilton): The Aurora seems to neutralize and augment our batteries alternately, making current too strong at times for our relay magnets. Suppose we work without batteries while we are affected by this trouble. 


OPERATOR 2 (voiced by Kumari): Very well.  


JACOB: In other places, there were reports of the aurora knocking out telegraph lines altogether and even causing sparks to fly off telegraph wires.  


PADI: That’s incredible. Today we use a lot more electricity than we did in 1859. I think most of us would feel lost if we couldn’t use cell phones, not to mention everything else we rely on. What would happen if the same type of storm happened again?  


JACOB: Well we don’t know for sure, and honestly I hope we never find out. That 1859 storm is known as the Carrington Event, named after that British astronomer. The Carrington Event is the high-water mark for solar storms on Earth. And even though we haven’t experienced anything that strong since then, we have seen other examples of what the Sun can do. In 1989, a solar storm knocked out power to the Canadian province of Quebec for nine hours. And in 2003, a storm caused a blackout in Europe, and it also damaged a few NASA spacecraft.  


PADI: Those are some serious effects. I can see why it’s important to keep an eye on space weather. So how does NASA do that?  


JACOB: Well, that brings us back to the space weather analysis office—the team of people that, as you may remember, is responsible for “babysitting” the Sun. 


TONY IAMPIETRO: Every day is different here. You’ll have some days where nothing happens. And then some days you’ll have 11 things to enter every hour.  


HANNAH: It’s fun! 


TONY: Yeah, that’s what makes it fun. The Sun is never—it’s never the same Sun every day. 


[Song: “Sequence of Events” by Ken Bowley and Phil Smith] 


JACOB: Tony Iampietro is another space weather analyst. On the day I visited, he was in charge of leading the daily briefing about solar activity, which we’ll hear in a second. One thing caught my eye, though, when I walked in. The office feels more or less like a small classroom. There are desks around the sides of the room. There’s a meeting table in the middle, a big screen at the front for presentations, and there are whiteboards and charts and things like that on the walls. On a whiteboard tucked into one small corner of the room, I noticed a scoreboard. Apparently there’s a friendly competition on the team to see who can spot the biggest solar flare.  


TONY: I just thought it’d be fun to keep track of who’s had the most flares and who’s had like the largest flare—just kind of like a fun leaderboard. Just a little team morale thing.  


JACOB: A typical day is like this: from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., at least one person always has a close eye on space weather. In the evening, there’s an on-call person until midnight because space weather doesn’t stop after business hours. Every day at 10 a.m., whoever is the so-called primary for the day leads a briefing for scientists across NASA. Now, you’re about to hear some serious solar science lingo. But I’ll help explain what’s going on.  


TONY: So, hello everybody. Good morning. Happy Tuesday. Starting with our general overview of the solar disk here, most of our regions of concern are over here in the southwest, with (starts to fade out) 3599 approaching the limb…  


JACOB: The team has a lot of tools to work with. The meeting starts with images. NASA has spacecraft constantly watching the Sun and sending back data. 


PADI: So we’ve talked about some of those before on Curious Universe, like SOHO and Solar Dynamics Observatory.   


JACOB: Right. And so anybody can look up these images online, But it really takes a trained eye to read what’s going on.  


[Song: “Vaccine Hope” by Peter Larsen] 


Tony points out one region of the Sun that seems like it could cause trouble.  


TONY: Obviously a good sign for potentially being well connected if flaring activity does occur from this. We’ve only had kind of like mid to low C Class flaring. I think C3 was our highest flare from the past 24 hours. But obviously well worth watching because we had that kind of spontaneous M7 from it a few days ago. So, fun to watch.  


PADI: I think you’re going to have to help us out here. I heard C3 and M7. Sounds like a code.  


JACOB: Yeah, so what you’re hearing is a crash course in the way we measure solar flares. There’s a ranking system, kind of like the Richter scale for earthquakes. The biggest flares are called X-class. The next biggest are M-class. Then there’s C-class, B-class, and the weakest category, A-class. So you heard Tony say he’s mostly tracking C-class flares. That’s pretty routine, and it shouldn’t cause any problems. But there’s other data to go through besides these images. Satellites from NASA and other groups measure different types of radiation from the Sun. Tony pulls up charts with titles like electron flux, proton flux, and X-ray flux. To boil it way, way down, a spike on these charts means the Sun might be up to something.   


TONY: We actually saw a bit of a jump—not a jump, shouldn’t say—a rise in the proton fluxes, very small but notable. This was likely due to that M7 class flare back on the 10th. So this is a few days ago. And we see that we’re still remaining nicely at background levels. But noting some small elevations from the activity. So again, kind of a sign of the times that if something bigger were to happen, maybe we’ll see a much larger reaction. 


JACOB: Seeing Tony connect the dots between this type of data and the observatory images of the Sun—it felt like watching a detective piece together clues in real time. Sometimes other people piped up with follow-up questions or to suggest an idea he hadn’t mentioned.  At one point, as Tony walked through areas of the Sun that could potentially cause trouble, another voice chimed in. It was Michel Romano, the deputy director of this office.  


TONY: So we’ll be taking a look to make sure we aren’t missing anything that maybe it’s showing up in later frames in SOHO as the first frame we see.   


MICHEL ROMANO: So any bets as to which one is going to go off?

TONY: If I had to bet—so active region 3599, it could easily trigger one of these filament eruptions as well or maybe the other way around. There’s a lot of stuff in play.  


MICHEL: So if something goes off, that’s going to change the trajectory of your day. 


TONY: Yes, very rapidly. 


MICHEL: Anything else for Tony? Thank you everybody. 


TONY: All right, have a good one. 


JACOB: All in all, it was a pretty quiet day in the space weather office. Now, I want to put a fine point on one thing. What we heard is a space weather analysis. This team does not technically do space weather forecasts. Those do exist. They come from another federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. So NASA, NOAA, and the Air Force all track space weather in their own ways, and they’re constantly communicating with each other.  


PADI: That’s fascinating, and it sounds like there are a lot of different ways to keep an eye on space weather. So if NASA isn’t putting out the official space weather forecast, what is there to analyze?  


JACOB: Yeah, that’s a great question. And there’s still a ton to do, especially because we’re in the middle of one of the most active times for the Sun.  


[Song: “Robotica” by Carl David Harms] 


Twenty twenty-four looks like it could be part of this period called solar maximum. To explain what makes this year special, I’m going to turn back to Hannah and Carina.    


HANNAH: What happens is—the Sun is magnetic as hopefully, is, you know, starting to sink in. 


JACOB: Padi, when you were in elementary school, did you ever use bar magnets in science class? Do you remember those demonstrations?   


PADI: I totally remember it. I can almost remember it like I was there, right? You put the magnet under the piece of paper. You put some filings on there that are magnetized, and you watch the magnetic field lines basically trace out on the paper. But it also felt kind of arty and creative and fun.  


JACOB: Exactly. So I definitely remember these lessons. The key thing that I took away is that magnets have a north pole and a south pole, right? Of course Earth also has north and south magnetic poles. And so does the Sun, but the Sun’s magnetic field does this tricky thing. Every 11 years, the north and south poles switch places.  


HANNAH: Over the course of, you know, several years, as those poles slowly start to flip, it causes the magnetic field—you know, things get tangled up. That’s when we start to see more and more of those sunspots, those active regions. We start to see more activity. 


JACOB: Twenty twenty-four could be that time when the Sun is most active. I’ll just add that we don’t really know why the cycle happens every 11 years, as opposed to five or 20 or some other number. NASA scientists want to figure that out.  


HANNAH: What it means for us, though, in the day to day is that things just keep getting more interesting and more exciting because— 


CARINA: More to analyze!  


HANNAH: Yeah, we’re on the up and up. 


JACOB: In fact, as I was putting this story together, I woke up one morning and saw a news alert on my phone about space weather. At the end of March, there was an X-class solar flare—that’s one of the bigger ones—that produced a coronal mass ejection, which led to a geomagnetic storm here on Earth. It led to a more pronounced aurora, which would have been great news for the aurora chasers we met in the last episode of this series. But it didn’t cause effects big enough for many of us to notice.  


PADI: What happens when there’s solar activity that isn’t directed towards Earth?  


JACOB: This is where this office really earns its stripes, because if you remember back to the beginning, when we tried to define space weather, a lot of people think only about the effects on Earth. But it’s bigger than that.  


CARINA: We are analyzing whatever the Sun emits in a full 360 degrees. So it does not matter which direction it is going, we will analyze it. 


JACOB: NASA has spacecraft all over the solar system. Some are approximately the same distance from the Sun as Earth. Some are much, much closer. Others are farther out, like at the distance of Mars or Jupiter.  


PADI: And it’s even more complicated than that, because sometimes those spacecraft are on the opposite side of the Sun from us. 


JACOB: Exactly. So when there’s a solar event—even if the Sun releases a CME that, let’s say, is headed straight for Mars—this team analyzes it, they run simulations to see where and when the solar radiation may arrive, and they assess whether any spacecraft might be in harm’s way. And if so, they can give a heads up to the team controlling that spacecraft.    


CARINA: In terms of like the missions that we support, so we’ve got quite a handful of missions we supported and we’ve had the privilege and pleasure to work with the James Webb Space Telescope. So we assisted with their launch. 


PADI: Jacob, can I interrupt for a second? Because NASA doesn’t just have machines in space. Our astronauts are up there too. What does space weather do to humans?  


JACOB: As you get farther from Earth, there’s no magnetic field to keep you safe. Exposure to too much solar radiation can lead to higher risk of cancer and other diseases. Carina and the other space weather analysts, they stay in touch with NASA’s Space Radiation Analysis Group. That’s the team that makes sure astronauts stay safe and don’t face dangerous radiation levels. 


PADI: If the space weather office does see increased radiation, is there anything the astronauts can do about it?  


JACOB: Yes, and this is why the analysis is so critical. The International Space Station actually has some areas that are more shielded from radiation. So if the crew is expecting that higher radiation to get to them, they can shelter there and they know not to go on spacewalks or expose themselves in ways like that.  


[Song: “Artificial Environment” by Carl David Harms] 


NASA is heading back to the Moon with the Artemis program. These Moon missions will help us send astronauts to Mars, and that will pose even bigger challenges to keep people safe from radiation. If you remember at the beginning how I said to put a pin in the phrase “Moon to Mars”, this is where it comes into play. 


CARINA: So with Artemis I, we had our six team members at the time do 24/7 operations where we basically were analyzing space weather in real time for 24/7 coverage, and so it was kind of like a rehearsal for us for what it will look like in terms of when the actual humans are aboard for Artemis II and such.  


JACOB: When Artemis I launched in November 2022, it was our first step back to the Moon. It was officially an uncrewed mission. But it was kind of crewed.  


UNIDENTIFIED VOICE 1: And then Zohar will have radiation detectors beneath the vest, above the vest …  


JACOB: There were no humans onboard. But there was a “moonikin” named Campos and two other manikins named Helga and Zohar.  




JACOB: I think they should have named one Padi, but they didn’t ask me. Anyway, the moonikins carried a whole bunch of sensors, including devices to measure radiation, and that data is really important to have for future missions. Meanwhile in the space weather office, Carina was one of the team members keeping a close eye on the Sun, even in the middle of the night.  


CARINA: And it was the weirdest sensation of you staring at the Sun all night and then coming out and it’s still dark out and you go to bed during the day you like you don’t see the sun for a month like in person, but you’re staring at it all day for work. It’s a very surreal experience. 

JACOB: Padi, I used to work an overnight shift, and I completely relate to this. You must have had some late nights working on projects too.  


PADI: Oh yes. There were many late nights that were also very dark and perfect for telescope observations, and many times they were also super cold too. I can relate.  


JACOB: But there is a good reason for making people like Carina stay up all night. When astronauts are out in deep space away from the magnetosphere, they need as much lead time as possible if there’s a spike in radiation. So when Artemis II launches next year—this time with real humans onboard—the space weather analysis office will go back to ‘round-the-clock coverage. 


PADI: That sounds like a huge responsibility, keeping astronauts safe in deep space. 


JACOB: It is. And leading up to that launch, I think it’s starting to sink in for folks in the space weather office.  


[Song: “Advancing Knowledge” by Carl David Harms] 


Last year they were invited to hear the Artemis II crew speak at an event.  


CARINA: We also got the opportunity to at least be very close proximity to the Artemis II crew and get to hear their talk in the auditorium here. So that was definitely kind of surreal, but really cool, you know, getting the opportunity to meet the crew that you will be protecting. Like, it’s your job to protect them and all. And also, that was definitely surreal and really cool. 


JACOB: You know, we always see pictures of the astronauts—in this case, the four members of the Artemis II crew—and there is no doubt they are getting ready for a monumental task. But I think it’s important to remember that it takes a ton of people working together to make space exploration possible.  


PADI: Yeah, that’s a lesson we keep hearing over and over on Curious Universe. Science is much bigger than one person or one idea. It takes people working together from all kinds of different backgrounds to tackle these huge missions. So I’m really glad we could meet this team. I’m curious, though: how has all of this changed how you think about space weather? 


JACOB: Well, I’m paying a lot closer attention to it, honestly. I find myself checking daily reports about the Sun and looking at that imagery from NASA’s solar observatories. Even if I can’t read it like a real space weather analyst, it’s just beautiful to see a whole new side of the Sun.   


PADI: It’s always beauty plus science that makes it just as cool as it can possibly be. Well maybe you can send me a telegram the next time you see a beautiful aurora.  


JACOB: Padi, I would be delighted. Thanks so much. And before we go, we have another installment of our new segment, “What are you still curious about?” 


[Song: “Sound Design Digital Uplifting Texture” by David Thomas Connelly] 


We ask that question to every single person we interview for this show, and we want to know what you’re curious about too. So it’s time to take a question from a curious listener and track down the answer. Today’s question comes from Lizzie Peabody. She is the host of Sidedoor: A Podcast from the Smithsonian, which tells stories about the more than 150 million treasures in the Smithsonian’s vaults. It’s like they sneak you into the museum right through the side door. 


Lizzie, thanks so much for being here.   


LIZZIE PEABODY: Thank you Jacob, it’s a pleasure to be here. Government podcasts unite! 


JACOB: There are a lot of things to be curious about at the Smithsonian, but of course air and space is a big part of that. So what kinds of space stories have you worked on? 


LIZZIE: We have told so many space stories. One was essentially about how a ladies girdle manufacturer, Playtex, and their team of excellent seamstresses outdid industrial contractors to create Neil Armstrong’s famous walking spacesuit. We also did one about the first marathon run in space. And I think my favorite is a nailbiter about the Apollo mission nobody talks about, even though they should. 


JACOB: OK, so let’s hear a clip. That episode is called “Apollo 12’s Really Close Call.” 


[Clip of Sidedoor podcast begins] 


Lizzie Peabody: Crowds sheltered under ponchos and umbrellas at Kennedy Space 

Center in Cape Canaveral, FL. President Nixon was there. 


News Radio announcer: President Nixon to be the first President to watch a launch 

while in office. 


Lizzie Peabody: Everybody waiting. 


Nick Partridge: So, countdown comes. 


Radio of the Apollo Saturn Launch: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, ignition four, three, 

two, one… 


Nick Partridge: They get to, you know, three, two, one, zero. The rocket comes to life 



Radio of the Apollo Saturn Launch: Liftoff. Liftoff. 


Nick Partridge: Can’t overstate the size and power and complexity and danger 

associated with this rocket. It was the biggest, most complex machine by some 

measures ever built. 


Lizzie Peabody: Ever. 


Nick Partridge: Right. 


Pete Conrad on Radio of the Apollo Saturn Launch: This baby is really going. 


Nick Partridge: Lift off goes without a hitch. 


Pete Conrad on Radio of the Apollo Saturn Launch: That’s a lovely liftoff. That’s not bad 

at all! Everything is lookin’ great, skies getting lighter. 


Nick Partridge: Everybody’s good for a few seconds. 


Pete Conrad on Radio of the Apollo Saturn Launch: 30 seconds – looks good. 


Nick Partridge: 36 seconds into the flight… 


Pete Conrad on Radio of the Apollo Saturn Launch: What the hell was that? 


Nick Partridge: Something happens. 


Lizzie Peabody: What happens? 


Radio of the Apollo Saturn Launch: I just lost the platform. 


Pete Conrad on Radio of the Apollo Saturn Launch: Ok, we just lost the platform. Yeah, 

I don’t know what happened here. We had everything in the world drop out. 


Nick Partridge: All of the systems go down. All of their indicators go haywire. All of the 

warning lights come on at once. 


Pete Conrad on Radio of the Apollo Saturn Launch: I’ve got three fuel cell lights… 


(inaudible radio feedback.) 


Lizzie Peabody: A mile in the air and approaching the speed of sound, the crew was 

riding an almost dead spacecraft atop a 36-story rocket toward space with no idea what 

was wrong. 


[Clip of Sidedoor podcast ends] 


JACOB: Lizzie, it’s a cliffhanger! You’ve got to tune in to find out.  


LIZZIE: That’s right. 


JACOB: Well, I know you already know a lot about space. But what are you still curious about?   


LIZZIE: I think you probably overestimate how much I know about space. Thank you (laughs). OK, here’s my question. Like many people, I had the amazing good fortune of being able to see the total solar eclipse on April 8th. I went up to Vermont with some friends and sat in a field and was completely awestruck. And I saw this bright flare on the southwest edge, and it made me wonder more about solar flares, and specifically: how can we get better at predicting solar flares?

JACOB: Earlier in this episode we went into solar flares a little bit—you know, what they are, why it’s important to track them, and how they can affect us here on Earth. But improving our predictions of flares and other space weather, it’s an ongoing process. It’s not going to happen overnight. But NASA observatories play a big role in that research.  


[Song: “Research and Development” by Carl David Harms] 


So we mentioned Solar Dynamics Observatory earlier in this episode. It collects data that is super valuable for researchers around the world.  So last year, researchers used data from that observatory to find some new clues that could help us see flares before they happen. So when we look at the Sun from here on Earth, we see a layer called the photosphere. So Lizzie, if you go out on a normal day and see the Sun, the photosphere is that layer you’re seeing.  




JACOB: But there is this other, outer layer called the corona. From Earth, our eyes can only see it during a total solar eclipse. It’s that wispy layer that you may have seen. Or if you didn’t see the eclipse yourself, it shows up in pictures kind of like a halo around the Moon.  


LIZZIE: Yeah. Yeah, I did—halo is exactly how I would describe it.  


JACOB: RIght. So scientists discovered that in that corona, there are these flashes that happen before a flare erupts. So if you think of a solar flare as like a big, noisy fireworks show, the flashes in the corona are kind of like sparklers that let you know something’s on the way. So that’s one way we can get better at predicting solar flares.  


Also, a few years ago, a Japanese team also used Solar Dynamics Observatory data to create a model that could attempt predictions of solar flares. The researchers say it needs more work, but it’s a start. You know, those are the kinds of baby steps you need to get to the big achievement, which in this case is accurately predicting flares before they happen. That’s a tall order, but it would be really helpful if we could get there.  


LIZZIE: Fascinating. OK, thank you for answering my question.  


JACOB: Of course. 


LIZZIE: Thank you so much for having me, and thanks for making your fantastic podcast. I am a happy listener. 


JACOB: That’s Lizzie Peabody. She hosts a podcast from the Smithsonian called “Sidedoor”.  


[Song: “Curiosity” by SYSTEM Sounds] 


This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by me, Jacob Pinter.   


PADI: Our executive producer is Katie Konans. The Curious Universe team includes Christian Elliott, Maddie Olson, and Micheala Sosby. Krystofer Kim is our amazing show artist. Our theme song was composed by the creative Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of SYSTEM Sounds.   


JACOB: Thanks to Michel Romano and the whole team at the Moon to Mars Space Weather Analysis Office for making this episode possible. Special thanks to Alessandra Pacini at NOAA and to NASA’s heliophysics team for their help throughout this series. And an extra special thanks to our talented voice actors who brought the Carrington Event to life. They are: Michael Starobin, Heidi Leach, Angel Kumari, Erin Roberts, Michelle Handleman, and Julia Tilton. And another special thanks to you! For being a space nerd. 


PADI: If you enjoyed this episode of NASA’s Curious Universe, please let us know by leaving us a review and sharing the show with a friend. And, remember, you can follow NASA’s Curious Universe in your favorite podcast app to get a notification each time we post a new episode. 




NASA AUDIO TAG: Three, two, one. This is an official NASA podcast.