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Solar Storms: An Engineering Challenge

Warren T. Jones, Ph.D., P.E.

Course Outline

This three hour online course discusses solar weather, the technologies that are vulnerable to damage by solar storms and the systems that are providing warnings and alerts. The increasing concern for a terrorist threat that could produce massive damage of the same kind as a solar storm is also discussed.  This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course content.

Learning Objectives

At the conclusion of this course, the student will:

Intended Audience

This course is intended for all engineers and architects.

Benefit for Attendee

Attendee of this course will be made aware of the increasing importance of space weather and its impact on technological systems and a related terrorist threat.

Course Introduction

This course is about plasmas, more specifically plasmas from our Sun. Our everyday experiences are dominated by matter in the three states of solid, liquid and gas. We don’t think much about this fourth state of matter. In fact, plasmas are by far the most common state of matter in the universe in both mass and volume.  Plasma consists of ionized particles of positive and negative charges and movement of these charges generates electric currents and magnetic fields. The stars, and in particular our sun are not solid objects but consist of plasma.  Different parts of the Sun rotate at different speeds causing magnetic field lines to twist and stretch and sometimes snap producing an eruption of electromagnetic energy into outer space. The dynamics of this plasma moving from the Sun to the Earth is called space weather and is analogous to atmospheric weather on the Earth. The interactions of the magnetosphere of the Earth with these solar ejections can produce serious problems with satellites, airline navigation systems and even the electrical grid and pipelines on the ground that are so important to our economy.
The course begins with an overview profile of space weather followed by a discussion of monitoring systems and forecasting tools. Finally, a terrorist threat is presented that has been known since the cold war but has become a special concern given the current war on terror.

Course Content

A Profile of Space Weather

Click here to view and read an online article on this subject.

Early Storm Warning Systems

In terms of light speed, the Sun is only eight minutes away. In contrast, normal solar wind travels at only about one million miles per hour. So solar         storm plasma, depending on its composition, reaches the earth between an hour and three days after events on the Sun.  Even though an event may be known to happen, it turns out to be a major challenge to predict when the resulting storm will reach the Earth and how large the impact will be on arrival. In order to meet this challenge, monitoring stations have been established in outer space.  Some of the satellites used as monitoring stations are described below:

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has developed models and tools with the objective of gaining lead time and also to improve the accuracy of its space weather warnings and watches. The following is a representative list of the models used at the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC):

Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse: A Terrorist Threat

A nuclear weapon detonated above the earth’s atmosphere can produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). The EMP process begins with an intensive burst of gamma rays that interact with molecules in the air (The Compton Effect), producing high energy electrons. The resulting ionization of the atmosphere generates a powerful electric field. The strength of the EMP is highest if the denotation is above 30,000 meters. This threat is very similar to naturally occurring solar storms, albeit potentially greater magnitude.

A Senate hearing was held to investigate this threat and subsequent to the hearing an article was published in the April 16, 2005 Washington Post by Jon Kyl, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee. The following are two excerpts from this article:

“Recently a Senate Judiciary subcommittee of which I am chairman held a hearing on a major threat to the American people, one that could come not only from terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda but from rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea.

An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the American homeland, said one of the distinguished scientists who testified at the hearing, is one of only a few ways that the United States could be defeated by its enemies – terrorist or otherwise. And it is probably the easiest. A single Scud missile, carrying a single nuclear weapon, detonated at the appropriate altitude, would interact with the Earth’s atmosphere, producing an electromagnetic pulse radiating down to the surface at the speed of light. Depending on the location and size of the blast, the effect would be to knock out already stressed power grids and other electrical systems across much or even all of the continental United States, for months if not years……

This threat may sound straight out of Hollywood, but it is very real. CIA Director Porter Goss recently testified before Congress about nuclear material missing from storage sites in Russia that may have found its way into terrorist hands, and FBI Director Robert Mueller has confirmed new intelligence that suggests that al Qaeda is trying to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. Iran has surprised intelligence analysts by describing the mid-flight detonations of missiles fired from ships on the Caspian Sea as “successful” tests. North Korea exports missile technology around the world. Scuds can easily be purchased on the open market for about $100,000 apiece.

A terrorist organization might have trouble putting a nuclear warhead “on target” with a Scud, but it would be much easier to simply launch and detonate in the atmosphere. No need for the risk and difficulty of trying to smuggle a nuclear weapon over the border or hit a particular city. Just launch a cheap missile from a freighter in international waters – al Qaeda is believed  to own about 80 such vessels – and make sure to get it a few miles in the air”

Course Summary

As our society becomes increasingly more dependent on electrical, electronic and computer technologies, it correspondingly becomes more vulnerable to the effects of space weather in the form of geomagnetic storms generated by the earth’s interaction with the sun. This course provides an introduction to introduce the basic concepts of space weather and its impact on the electrical grid, pipelines, airline navigation systems and other vital technologies. The terrorist threat of a high altitude nuclear blast that can generate great damage similar to solar storms is also presented. An awareness of threats of the sort discussed in the course is important for all engineers and architects.

Related Links

For additional technical information related to this subject, please visit the following website:

MetaTech Corporation
Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) Satellite
Solar Physics Group at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
Human Impacts of Solar Storms
Sun-Earth Viewer
NOAA Space Weather Center
Space Weather Journal
Threat Assessment for Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack on the United States
Space Weather 101
Electronic Armageddon - An Episode of National Geographic Explorer
Electric Power Grids and Space Weather
A Promising Practical Application of Magnetoplasma: Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket


Once you finish studying the above course content, you need to take a quiz to obtain the PDH credits.

Take a Quiz

DISCLAIMER: The materials contained in the online course are not intended as a representation or warranty on the part of PDH Center or any other person/organization named herein. The materials are for general information only. They are not a substitute for competent professional advice. Application of this information to a specific project should be reviewed by a registered architect and/or professional engineer/surveyor. Anyone making use of the information set forth herein does so at their own risk and assumes any and all resulting liability arising therefrom.