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NOVA scienceNOW: Space Storms

Program Overview

Scientists investigate the causes of space weather—electrical storms caused by charged particles and radiation coming from the sun. They also describe the THEMIS mission and how it may aid space-weather predictions.

This NOVA scienceNOW segment:

  • explains that space weather storms are caused by solar wind (electrically charged particles and radiation) coming from the sun.

  • describes how the northern lights occur: While most of the solar wind is deflected by Earth's magnetic field, some of it collides with gas molecules in the atmosphere. These collisions excite the molecules, causing them to fluoresce and produce colorful flashes of light around Earth's poles.

  • points out that northern lights, though beautiful to observers on Earth, can expose astronauts to deadly amounts of radiation, damage satellite electrical systems, and overwhelm power grids, causing massive blackouts.

  • reports that the THEMIS mission will analyze space weather to better understand it. The mission consists of five identical satellites with giant antennas. The THEMIS satellites line up in Earth's magnetic field every four days and accrue space-weather data.

  • discusses how the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center assesses the THEMIS information and makes a daily space weather prediction. The current system allows for forecasts one hour ahead of a space weather storm.

  • concludes with the hope that THEMIS's two-year mission will collect enough revealing data so that scientists can make earlier, more accurate space weather predictions.

Taping Rights: Can be used up to one year after the program is taped off the air.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Space Storms