If the storm reaches Earth, it can cause a beautiful display of the aurora borealis, De Jong said, “but they also can whip out satellites, cell phones … even power grids.” The fast-moving protons and electrons that jet from the sun during these solar storms can also sicken astronauts who have traveled beyond the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field. “As we become a space-faring species, we’re going to have to deal with that,” De Jong said. The STEREO satellites, one of which circles the sun ahead of the Earth while one follows behind, will track the changes in the sun’s temperature and surface features. “Scientists will use all this information – the temperature information, the geometry information – to try to better understand the magnetic structures and when they’re going to cause solar storms, so hopefully this will allow us to better be able to predict space weather,” said Paulette Liewer, a JPL astronomer and co-investigator for the mission. LA CA?ADA FLINTRIDGE – NASA researchers revealed the first three-dimensional pictures of the sun Monday, the work of a pair of new satellites called the STEREO observatories. With these unique images, they hope to learn how to predict dangerous and destructive solar storms, much as meteorologists 50 years ago harnessed new technology to forecast hurricanes, said Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer Eric De Jong. The solar storms, or coronal mass ejections, are caused by tears in the sun’s powerful and chaotic magnetic field, said De Jong, an investigator on the STEREO – Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory – team. The tears can eject more than 1 billion tons of superheated gas from the sun’s atmosphere at speeds of 1 million mph. With advance warning, satellite managers and power companies can take precautions to avoid serious damage, which one worst-case scenario showed could otherwise cause $70 billion in losses. By keeping their cameras trained toward the sun, the crafts are also able to watch for visitors from distant corners of the solar system, such as the comet McNaught that looped around the sun in January. “I know when the scientists first saw this they were ecstatic,” said Madhulika Guhathakurta, the mission’s program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “You could see the striations of this comet’s tail – it looked like the plumes of feathers of a bird of paradise,” she said. “These are the kind of things we are beginning to see that we did not expect, and I think STEREO’s going to make much more such observations.” [email protected] (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!