Europe has launched its first space-weather coordination center to prepare for solar storms or other activity which could cause problems on Earth.
Large solar storms are currently one of the biggest threats to our modern way of life. A large enough storm can knock out the internet, telephone lines, tv and transportation for a long time. The earth would be left without electricity and for a species that is largely dependent on it for business and economics, we would all be in dire straits. Some precautions can be taken to protect our most valuable electronics and digital information, but on a larger scale, an early warning system is important.
The European Space Agency (ESA) space weather division head, Juha-Pekka Luntama, explained just how serious the consequences of a solar storm can be: "A pilot can always land a plane… because they have alternatives [to satellites] for navigation, but if they get the disturbance without warning, at the wrong time, that can be dangerous.” Even a minor glitch in the electronics onboard a GPS satellite can give a faulty readout on the pilot’s instruments and inform him that the ground is much further away than it really is.
This could happen to a transformer near you if the Sun decides to be mean
In 1859, a coronal mass ejection sent an electric surge through global telegraph lines, starting fires and electrocuting the operators. Modern equivalences would be broken satellites, blown transformers and a cascading blackout after the power grid becomes overloaded. Luntama explains that though such occurrences are exceedingly rare, they happen around the solar maximum, the period of greatest solar activity in the solar cycle and a period which we are currently in.
This is why the ESA has launched its first solar weather coordination center (a similar center exists in the United States). By observing the solar activity, the center could receive a 17-48 hour head start between detecting the coming storm, and the effects first being felt on Earth. During this precious time, satellites could be shut down, air traffic grounded and power could be turned off to reduce the load on the power grid. Even astronauts onboard the ISS would need to take precautionary measures, and with the warning system, they’d have ample time to hide in protected parts of the station.
The new weather center will draw on expertise from several universities, institutions and companies and coordinate their knowledge in a central point.