Starry Night: Early February 2012 — Solar flares strike the planet

Posted Wednesday, January 25, 2012 in Features

Starry Night: Early February 2012 — Solar flares strike the planet

Courtesy NASA

by Tristan Radtke

On Jan. 22, a solar storm began on the surface of the sun, triggering a string of solar flares that spewed radiation and various forms of metal and gas in the direction of the Earth. By Jan. 24, the storm was reaching its most turbulent period yet, and fearing disruptions in radio communications due to the solar flares, circumpolar flights were rerouted and NASA advised the public that GPS and communications satellites may be unreliable during mid-day on Jan. 24.

While large solar events such as this one are relatively rare (the last major flare-up of the sun occurred in 2005), solar activity is cyclical, with periods of near inactivity and periods of extremely turbulent solar weather. The current cycle, Solar Cycle 24, which has been relatively quiet for an active solar cycle, is forecast to reach a peak sometime in early 2013.

Solar flares, especially in a modern electronic society, have a great potential for destruction – it is estimated by NASA that a particularly strong storm could cause up to $2 trillion in damage to infrastructure and electronic equipment. It is unlikely that they would cause much environmental damage, since the real danger behind most solar flares would come in the form of electromagnetic energy. For more information about solar flares and solar sciences in general, visit this informative NASA website. For more information on the solar-cycle system, visit this link.

The Stars

This is a good time, weather permitting, to see our view of our home galaxy again. The Milky Way looks like a hazy band of clouds, passing through Orion, Monoceros and Canis major.  Because we are out in the western spiral suburbs, so to speak, we see the galaxy with the same aspect as someone on the outskirts of an old LP could see the disk in the center with the name of the album. That's why the galaxy doesn't look like a "galaxy" to us, although our counterpart on a planet in the western spiral arm of Andromeda would see a similar sight as we do when we look toward Andromeda.

The Planets

• Mercury: Mercury begins the month of February lost in the sun’s morning glare. By Feb. 15, it will be moving back toward the early evening side of the Ssn but will still be lost in the glare.

• Venus: Venus will start February setting at 8 p.m. On Feb. 15, Venus will have moved about a half-hour further into the evening, setting around 8:30 p.m.

• Mars: Mars will rise at 8 p.m. on Feb. 1, and by mid-month it will rise at 7:50 p.m.

• Jupiter: Jupiter will set around 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 1, and by Feb. 15 it will set around 10:30 p.m.

• Saturn: Saturn will rise at 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 1. On Feb. 15, Saturn will rise around 10:30 p.m.

• Uranus: Uranus begins February setting at around 8:45 p.m. By mid-month it will set around 8 p.m.

• Neptune: On Feb. 1, Neptune will set around 6:15 p.m., and by mid-month it will be lost in the sun’s glare.

• Pluto: Pluto will rise at 4:50 a.m. to begin February and will rise around 3:45 a.m. by Feb. 15.

The Moon

The moon enters February waxing toward full phase, reaching full on Feb. 7. It will wane to third quarter by Feb. 14, and reach new phase by Feb. 21. The moon will end the month waxing, reaching first quarter on March 1.

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