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NASA’s stunning images of the sun may ultimately protect Earth from solar storms

A short trip to space provided astronomers with unprecedented data and a stunning view of the sun.  Now, some astronomers are saying the data collected during that flight may provide better forecasts for predicting both the intensity and timing of solar flares traveling towards Earth.

NASA, which shared its findings on Wednesday, says the short-lived mission provided astronomers with an unprecedented view of Earth’s nearest star. The data collected by NASA’s High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C) telescope likely answers one of the sun’s most puzzling mysteries:  Why is the sun’s upper atmosphere hotter than its surface?

The trip captured 165 never-before-seen images of the sun, according to NASA.  The telescope reportedly focused on a massive active region of the sun, with some images revealing the dynamic solar atmosphere in fine detail. The sun, which has a surface temperature of only 5,000 degrees Celsius, is far hotter in the upper atmosphere, where temperatures can reach upwards of millions of degrees.  The resulting data revealed much of the sun’s temperature difference is the result of of “braids — also known as magnetic loops — that seem to wrap around each other. Astronomers say the “braids” likely serve as a sort of trap for the sun’s plasma, containing it to its surface.

Astronomers say the insight will likely lead to better solar forecasts, including the ability to predict the intensity of solar flares directed at Earth. Currently, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — which handles solar weather forecasting and reporting — are largely unable to predict solar storms on a day-to-day basis.

“This high temperature atmosphere is where space weather is initiated and where energetic events like flares and coronal mass ejections can originate,” Hi-C mission principal investigator Jonathan Cirtain told reporters during a  NASA teleconference on Wednesday.  “So understanding the energy supply for the corona has implications across the stellar structure and heliophysics, in general.”

While forecasting solar storms may seem trivial, a number of studies have attempted to estimate the cost of a massive solar storm hitting Earth. A monster ejection of geomagnetic particles from the sun could destroy 300 or more of the 2,100 high-voltage transformers that are the backbone of the U.S. electric grid, according to a recently published report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The destruction of a few crucial high-voltage transformers could leave much of the continent in technological darkness, the report noted. GPS systems, cell phones, and other technological advances relying on satellites orbiting Earth would also be affected. The total cost of a solar flare hitting worldwide could cost us upwards of $2 trillion, making it the most costly environmental disaster in human history.

The timing of the mission could not be better; Both NOAA and NASA have forecast 2013 as the peak of the sun’s solar cycle, meaning Earth can expect to find itself on the receiving end of stronger and more intense solar storms.

Image courtesy of NASA.

See NASA’s images here.