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Cloudy With a Chance of Catastrophe: Predicting the Weather in Space

Image credit: NASA

In 1859, while observing sunspots, a young astronomer named Richard Carrington recorded a geomagnetic storm so powerful, the electrical currents it sent to Earth were enough to keep the newly invented telegraph operating without a battery. Centuries later, though humans have sent robots to Mars and even strong-armed a couple engineers into walking on the moon, the science of space weather, the changing environmental conditions in near-Earth space, has largely managed to elude us. In fact even the term “space weather” is new; it wasn’t used regularly until the 1990s.

Now, an international project led by China is hoping to advance the study of space weather by light-years in order to minimize the dangerous impact a storm in space might have on us fragile Earthlings.

If experts are correct, there's a chance that a serious space weather threat will arrive sooner rather than later – and the risk to humans is greater than you think.

Oddly, the trouble is that we’ve become too advanced. Because humans today are so dependent upon modern electrical technology, a space storm the size of the one Carrington recorded in 1859 could cause catastrophic problems if it occurred tomorrow. According to a 2008 National Academy of Sciences Report, from long-term electrical blackouts to damage to communication satellites and GPS systems (not to mention billions in financial losses), the results could be devastating worldwide.

Luckily, scientists are hopeful the KuaFu project will prevent (or at least minimize the impact of) this kind of disaster.

Our Eyes on the Sun, The Sun in Our Eyes

Named for Kua Fu, a sun-chasing giant from a Chinese folktale whose pursuit to tame the brightest star in our solar system ended after he died of thirst, the KuaFu project will create a space weather forecasting system 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth's surface. The goal is similar to the one from the legend: to observe changes in solar-terrestrial storms, investigate flows of energy and solar material, and improve the forecasting of space weather.

Not necessarily to tame the sun, but, at least, to understand it.

Proposed in 2003 by scientist Chuanyi Tu from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the project will place three separate satellites at strategic points in our solar system to observe the inner workings of space weather. China's National Space Administration along with the European and Canadian Space Agencies will work together to man them.

“Being aware of the impending blindness to space weather and its effects, we consider a mission like KuaFu absolutely mandatory,” said Dr. Rainer Schwenn, one of the developers of KuaFu. “If 'space weather' keeps being considered an important science goal, then KuaFu is a real key project.”

The satellites will offer an unprecedented ability to glean information about the often tumultuous relationship between the sun and Earth, by allowing scientists to observe both the star and its effects on the planet simultaneously. To now, this process has been viewable only via computer simulation.

“You have to look at the two systems simultaneously [to most accurately forecast space weather]” said Dr. William Liu, a senior scientist at the Canadian Space Agency who took over as project leader when Chuanyi Tu retired two years ago. “It's a real observation; it's what's actually happening.”

Space Storm Showdown: What Do We Do?

So, if the power-grid frying, billion dollar damage-wreaking storm is inevitable, how much will forecasting it actually help?

Lots.

According to Liu, predicting space weather activity can give the operators who maneuver satellites in space the information they need to protect them and us from harm.

For example: If companies know a storm is approaching, it gives them a chance to tweak their loads before their systems descend into chaos and shut off power for, say, the entire East Coast of the United States.

“That's how you prevent catastrophe,” Liu explained. “You reduce the load on the parts that are more sensitive.”

While the project was originally scheduled to be completed this year, Liu’s current estimates put its debut at 2016. Despite the delays, he remains optimistic it will come to fruition, pointing out that international collaborations like this one often stir up scientific and financial challenges that delay the launch process.

Whether the KuaFu project will be able to predict space weather accurately all of the time is up for debate. Liu, however, is confident that, at the very least, it's a step toward that direction .

“With this launch and operation, we'll make our predictions better. Whether it will be 100 percent, that will be too much to ask, but it will definitely improve our knowledge.”

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10 Fab Facts About George Harrison
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You probably know George Harrison as a Beatle, the lead guitarist of the most famous band in the world. We’re guessing that there’s a lot you don’t know about the youngest of The Fab Four, who was born on this day in 1943.

1. HE WAS ONLY 27 WHEN THE BEATLES BROKE UP.


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George Harrison turned 27 on February 25, 1970, less than two months before Paul McCartney told the world he had no future plans to work with the Beatles. It had been 12 years since Harrison had joined John Lennon’s band, The Quarrymen—shortly after McCartney, his Liverpool schoolmate—in 1958.

2. HE INVENTED THE MEGASTAR ROCK BENEFIT CONCERT.

Before Harrison organized the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, there were performances for charity, of course. But when his friend, the great Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, told him about the plight of Bangladeshi refugees, victims of both war and a devastating cyclone who now faced starvation, Harrison felt compelled to devote himself to the cause. He recruited stars like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Badfinger, and Leon Russell, and together they played two sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971. Harrison then arranged for the release of a concert album and film. The ventures had raised more than $12 million by 1985, and profits from sales of the movie and soundtrack continue to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.

3. HE WROTE “CRACKERBOX PALACE” ABOUT HIS QUIRKY MANSION.

Harrison nicknamed his 120-room Friar Park mansion “Crackerbox Palace” after a friend’s description of Lord Buckley’s tiny Los Angeles home. The 66-acre property, about 37 miles west of London, was first owned by Sir Frank Crisp, a lawyer who lived there from 1889 to 1919. Harrison bought the estate in 1970—and quickly penned “The Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp,” which appeared on his first solo album, All Things Must Pass, also in 1970.

Friar Park was a strange place, with gnomes, grottos, a miniature Matterhorn, and lavish gardens, which Harrison loved to tend. According to the Victoria County History website, the house itself “is an architectural fantasy in red brick, stone, and terracotta, mixing English, French and Flemish motifs in lavish, undisciplined profusion.”

4. HE LOVED HANGING OUT WITH BOB DYLAN AND THE BAND.

All four Beatles were Dylan fans, and first met him in 1964. But Harrison felt a special bond with him, and spent weeks at Dylan’s Woodstock, New York home in the fall of 1968. The Band was there, too, and Harrison loved the collaborative atmosphere. During this time Dylan and Harrison co-wrote “I’d Have You Anytime,” which appeared on 1970's All Things Must Pass. The two would become bandmates in the Traveling Wilburys, and maintained a close, lifelong friendship.

5. THE "QUIET BEATLE" WASN’T SO QUIET.

"He never shut up," friend and fellow Traveling Wilbury Tom Petty once said of Harrison. "He was the best hang you could imagine."

6. WHEN HE LOST HIS VIRGINITY, THE OTHER BEATLES CHEERED.

The Beatles at the EMI studios in Abbey Road, as they prepare for 'Our World', a world-wide live television show broadcasting to 24 countries with a potential audience of 400 million.
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During the band’s early years, they had extended runs as a house band in Hamburg, Germany, and were paid so poorly (and had to be on stage for so many hours) that they shared a small room in the club’s basement. Hence the witnesses to George’s deflowering, at age 17. "We were in bunkbeds," Harrison recalled. "They couldn't really see anything because I was under the covers, but after I'd finished they all applauded and cheered. At least they kept quiet whilst I was doing it."

7. WITHOUT HIM, THERE MAY NOT HAVE BEEN A MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN.

EMI Films, Life of Brian’s original backer, withdrew funding for the Monty Python comedy classic just before filming began, scared that the religious subject matter would be too controversial. Harrison, a big fan and friend of the Pythons, set up his own production company—Handmade Films—to fund the project. Why? "Because I liked the script and I wanted to see the movie,” he explained. Harrison not only saw the film, he appeared in it, as Mr. Papadopolous, "owner of the Mount.” Monty Python’s Life of Brian, released in 1979, was a huge hit in both the UK and U.S., and was ranked as the 10th best comedy film of all time in 2010 by The Guardian.

8. HE WAS THE FIRST EX-BEATLE TO SIMULTANEOUSLY TOP BOTH THE SINGLES AND ALBUMS CHARTS.

Harrison began recording the songs that would comprise All Things Must Pass at Abbey Road on May 26, 1970, just weeks after the Beatles broke up. The triple album was released in late November, along with “My Sweet Lord,” the first single from the album. Both the record and the single spent weeks at the top of the Billboard and Melody Maker charts in early 1971, while receiving rave reviews.

9. THE FIRST SONG HE WROTE WAS INSPIRED BY A DESIRE TO TELL PEOPLE TO GET LOST.

Harrison wrote “Don’t Bother Me,” his first first solo composition, while sick in bed at the Palace Court Hotel in Bournemouth, England, in the summer of 1963. It “was an exercise to see if I could write a song,” Harrison said. “I don't think it's a particularly good song ... It mightn't even be a song at all, but at least it showed me that all I needed to do was keep on writing, and then maybe eventually I would write something good." “Don’t Bother Me” appeared on With The Beatles, their second studio album.

10. HE WAS THE FIRST BEATLE TO VISIT, AND PLAY IN, THE U.S.

In the fall of 1963, Harrison traveled to Benton, Illinois to visit his sister, Louise, and her husband, George Caldwell. During his 18-day stay, Harrison also became the first Beatle to play in the U.S.—appearing on stage with The Four Vests at the VFW Hall in Eldorado. He played the second set with the band, taking over lead guitar and singing "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Your Cheatin' Heart."

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