What is Space Weather?

Diagram illustrating the relentless magnetic activity of the Sun directly influencing the near-Earth environment. Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Sun provides Earth with the light and heat energy that makes life on our planet possible. The Sun gives off electromagnetic energy in many wavelengths, including visible light, radio waves, ultraviolet "light", high energy X-rays, and more. The Sun also emits a stream of radiation in the form of charged particles that make up the plasma of the "solar wind". Occasional outbursts from huge explosions on the Sun (solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections - CMEs) send "space weather storms" hurtling outward through our solar system. Some of these storms smash into Earth's magnetosphere, the protective magnetic bubble which surrounds our fragile planet. Particle radiation spiraling down along our planet's magnetic field lines can damage satellites, disrupt communications systems, and even short out our electrical power systems. As these radiation particles collide with atoms in Earth's upper atmosphere, they sometimes produce the spectacular light shows called "auroras" - the Northern Lights and Southern Lights.