The Earth is under constant threat of attack. I know this because I am watching events unfold on screens in the darkened operations room of our first line of defense.
Staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado resembles the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. The walls are covered in TV screens, displaying live images of the Sun captured by telescopes and spacecraft. Two men sit at curved desks in front of me, each surrounded by a bank of computer monitors. Their faces are lit by the dancing reflections of our nearest star in a range of spectra, through blue to red and dazzling white. One of them is taking a particular interest in a dark patch on the left side of the Sun, displayed as a bleached-out image on one of his screens.
“All these images are daunting, a bit like the Louvre for space weather,” says my guide, space scientist Joe Kunches.
Space weather refers to everything the Sun throws at us – from the continuous stream of charged particles it constantly spews out, called the solar wind, to the belches of eruptions, ejections and flares. The Earth is protected from this onslaught, to a large extent, by its magnetic field, which generates a shield or bubble around the planet known as the magnetosphere.