TECH

UK Opens Solar Storm 'Operations Centre' To Battle The Sun

08/10/2014 11:25 BST | Updated 08/10/2014 11:59 BST

Solar storms are a problem. Not in the future, not in sci-fi. Now.

All astronomers know this. The Met Office knows this. And the UK government knows it too.

That's why they have - finally - opened an operations centre to actually deal with it.

Solar storms come in two main flavours of awful. The first is caused by solar flares, which are sudden releases of energy that travel at the speed of light directly to Earth in about 8.5 minutes. They can cause radio outages and other problems at the extreme end.

Worse, though, are problems caused by coronal mass ejections, which are much larger and more dangerous. In a CME the sun throws off vast amounts of material (not just energy) in one giant belch, sending energised particles carrying magnetic fields from the Sun away in enormous waves. If two are sent in quick succession, the first can clear the path for the second - meaning their impact is even stronger. These CMEs can cause huge problems on Earth, and potentially shut down everything from communications networks to power grids.

Fortunately they travel more slowly than solar flares, and can take several days to reach Earth. There's still just one satellite that can track them accurately, and we only have about a half hour warning of their arrival to any accurate degree, but we do know they're coming.

Now the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre is finally open to do just that.

The centre, based in Exeter, will work with experts in the US and UK to co-ordinate forecasting. and relay warnings to relevant officials across the country in the event of a potential problem.

This is a good thing, not least because of the potential financial fallout. In 2012 Lloyds of London said a large event on the scale of 1859 Carrington Event could cost the US alone $2.6 trillion.

The Met Office centre has been working already for weeks at this task, but the official opening by science minister Greg Clark will formally launch Britain's defensive operations against the Sun.