Scientists warned yesterday that a peak in solar activity is due to occur in 2012, risking the disruption of television and internet networks during the London Olympic Games.

“The Olympics could be bang in the middle of a solar maximum,” said Richard Harrison, of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire, speaking before the launch this week of Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

It has long been known that surges in solar activity can cause disruption in satellite and terrestrial communications systems, but, until now, it has been almost impossible to predict solar storms in advance.

After the launch of Nasa’s solar observatory, scientists say that they will be able to give warning of magnetic storms and solar flares.

The Nasa probe, which is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral on Saturday, will spend five years in orbit around the Earth, investigating the causes of extreme activity, such as sun spots, solar winds and violent eruptions from the Sun’s atmosphere known as coronal mass ejections. “Such events can expose astronauts to deadly particle doses, can disable satellites, cause power grid failures on Earth and disrupt communications,” Professor Harrison said.

Following a figure-of-eight orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth’s surface, the observatory will measure fluctuations in the Sun’s ultraviolet output, map magnetic fields and collect images of the atmosphere. The observatory will beam back images more than ten times the resolution of high-definition television every 0.75 seconds.

The observatory is likely to transmit up to 50 times more data than any previous Nasa mission, according to scientists on the project. Each day it will send a volume of data back to Earth equivalent to downloading 500,000 music tracks from the internet.

The launch comes just as the Sun appears to be stirring, after several years in “deep minimum”. Between 2008 and 2009 there were more than 250 “spotless” days — a record low since 1913. However, in the past two weeks two solar flares have developed, indicating that the Sun is likely to be entering a more active phase in its eleven-year cycle.

“The launch is absolutely timely,” Professor Harrison said.


www.timesonline.co.uk