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Not-So-Sly Fox

December 28, 2000

The Sun has made a lot of news lately. It's at the peak in its 11 year cycle of activity, meaning we are getting more sunspots, flares and coronal mass ejections (giant eruptions of billion of tons of material shot out in all directions).

The Fox News website got a little befuddled reporting about the massive outburst termed the Bastille Day Event, since it happened on July 14 of 2000. [Note (January 13, 2001): I copied the date of the event from the Fox newssite, which said July 20, but a reader just corrected me, pointing out that Bastille Day is the 14th. Oops. I corrected the date above.] In the article on their website, they say: ``Once this powerful storm reached Earth, astrological cameras were fried, [and] satellites were knocked out of their orbits...'' [emphasis mine].

[Note added January 5, 2001: the article at the Fox website has corrected the wording, replacing ``astrological'' with ``astronomical''. Someone must have emailed them; it's too much to hope that they read this website! ;-)]

First, an astrological camera might be used to take a picture of someone who has a non-scientific belief that the planets may rule their lives (which might be true of some astronomers, I suppose), but I don't know of any watching the Sun. They meant to say astronomical, of course. Once, in a newspaper article about this very website, I was referred to as an astrologer. The quickest way to get an astronomer upset is to call them an astrologer.

Second, satellites cannot be knocked from their orbits by a solar blast. The charged particles from the Sun can fry a satellite's electronics, and these electronics can control the satellite's attitude (its position and pointing). It's possible that after time, a satellite's orbit will decay as drag from the Earth's atmosphere-- tenuous at those heights, but still there-- robs orbital energy from the satellite, dropping its height because the craft cannot control its position. But that's not what the article says; it implies the blast is like the satellite was hit by a wind which physically knocks it from its orbit. The solar wind, even at its thickest, is far too thin to do anything like that.

Solar storms are dangerous: they can indeed damage satellites, and they can cause brownouts or even blackouts on Earth. They also cause aurorae, as the Fox article correctly points out later. Sometimes, though, it's hard to say which is more damaging: real astronomy or bad astronomy.

My thanks to Bad Reader Jack Burke for alerting me to this one!

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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