Scientists Say: Space weather | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Space weather

This phrase refers to the conditions on the sun and in space that can affect life on Earth
May 13, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
an image of a coronal mass ejection

This is an image of a coronal mass ejection — a spurt of plasma, or hot, charged particles from the sun. These spurts are one part of space weather, which can affect life on Earth. 


Space weather (noun, “SPAY-s WEH-thur”)

This phrase describes conditions in the atmosphere far above Earth and around the sun. This weather doesn’t produce clouds, rain or snow. But it can still have a big impact on our lives. Space weather can come from the solar wind — vast gusts of electrically charged particles — produced by our sun. The sun can also spurt out sudden bursts called coronal mass ejections. These are great bursts of plasma and magnetic fields. The charged particles from solar winds can interact with the charged particles in our ionosphere — the upper part of our atmosphere. The magnetic fields from coronal mass ejections can also mix with Earth’s own magnetic fields. These interactions can produce “storms” of electricity. That electricity can damage satellites or overload power lines and cause blackouts.

In a sentence

Space weather is what gives the Northern Lights their intensely colorful hues.

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Power Words

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atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

blackout     (in energy) The loss of electric power to a broad area, and so named because all of the electric lights in the affected area will blink off when this occurs (unless they have a backup electric generator).

coronal mass ejections     The powerful release of huge bubbles of gas threaded with magnetic field lines. These can be spew from the sun over a span of hours. They can accompany solar flares, but usually do not. 

electric charge  The physical property responsible for electric force; it can be negative or positive.

electricity     A flow of charge, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.

field     (in physics) A region in space where certain physical effects operate, such as magnetism (created by a magnetic field), gravity (by a gravitational field), mass (by a Higgs field) or electricity (by an electrical field).

hue     A color or shade of some color.

ionosphere     A layer of Earth’s atmosphere lying around 75 and 1,000 kilometers (47 and 620 miles) above Earth’s surface. It absorbs the sun’s harmful extreme-ultraviolet rays. That energy strips electrons from atoms and molecules, creating a zone full of free-floating ions. The share of ions present, here, affects radio and other signals passing through it.

magnetic field     An area of influence created by certain materials, called magnets, or by the movement of electric charges.

particle     A minute amount of something.

plasma     (in chemistry and physics) A gaseous state of matter in which electrons separate from the atom. A plasma includes both positively and negatively charged particles. (in medicine) The colorless fluid part of blood.

satellite     A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.

solar wind     A flow of charged particles (including atomic nuclei) that have been ejected from the surface of the star, such as our sun. It can permeate the solar system. This is called a stellar wind, when from a star other than the sun.

space weather     Conditions on the sun, in the solar wind and within Earth’s upper atmosphere that can affect technologies on Earth and that have the potential to endanger human health. Triggering these weather events are the stream of plasma, or solar wind, emitted by the sun. In addition, there are clouds of material spewed by the sun, known as coronal mass ejections. Together, these can contribute to large magnetic and electrical storms in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

star     The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Also a term for any sunlike star.

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.